A Tale of Two Criminals

If you’ve poked around the internet the past month, you might have come across the image below. The meme juxtaposes two news articles to highlight the questionable retributive values behind American criminal law. But some people are crying hoax about this viral phenomenon—are they correct?

Meet Paul R. Allen, the former CEO of one of the nation’s largest privately held mortgage lenders, Taylor, Bean & Whitaker, which collapsed in 2009 due to a massive $3 billion fraud scheme which resulted in 2,000 employees losing their jobs. Paul was sentenced to 40 months in prison for his role in the scheme. Now meet Roy Brown, a homeless resident of Shreveport, Louisiana, who robbed a bank for $100 because he was hungry—only to remorsefully turn himself in the very next day. Roy was sentenced to 15 years in prison for first-degree robbery. I came across this image of the two of them sometime last year, long before the Occupy Wall Street movement made it viral again. At the time, I refused to believe Roy Brown was sentenced to 15 years for stealing $100—which he later voluntarily surrendered. When the image resurfaced again last month, I dug a little deeper into Roy’s story, as Paul Allen’s story was much easier to verify. Through some internet sleuthing, I found out that Roy Brown is indeed incarcerated at Madison Parish Detention Center in Louisiana:

I was also able to obtain a list of Roy Brown’s criminal offenses, all of which are part of the public record:

The original story was written by KTBS in Shreveport, Louisiana and can be found here. Other diligent bloggers have looked into the story and even contacted KTBS, which has stood by the story’s authenticity.

Now that we know Roy Brown isn’t a hoax, how can we explain the absurdity of his sentence? As usual, the internet is full of skeptics and naysayers who are quick to point out Roy’s prior offenses. Some of them even consider the 15-year-sentence generous. If Louisiana’s three strikes law was at play, Brown could have faced life in prison. Roy’s sentence for first-degree robbery alone could have been anywhere from 3 years to 40 years.

Internet skeptics are also quick to point out that Paul R. Allen wasn’t instrumental in the $3 billion fraud scheme. These skeptics are the problem and reason behind the outcry about these two men. Do we really believe that the fact Roy Brown “seemed armed” to the teller is decisive—no matter what the difference is between $100 and $3 billion? No matter whether or not there were mitigating factors at play—hunger, homelessness, and voluntary surrender?

The huge difference in the punishment for these crimes is due, at least in part, to simple human psychology. In The Life You Can Save, Australian philosopher Peter Singer explored why millions continue to die of preventable disease, malnutrition, and starvation, despite the arsenal of wealth available to solve all of these problems. He attributed it to diffusion of responsibility and cognitive dissonance—in one of the book’s examples, he asks you, the reader, to imagine walking briskly to work in a wool suit. You pass a toddler in a shallow pond, and the toddler appears to be drowning. No one else is in the vicinity. In that moment, almost anyone would run into the pond, save the child, and happily ruin the wool suit and arrive late to work. Then Singer reminds readers: At the same time you are walking to work in a suit, somewhere else in our world, a child is dying of hunger. In fact, Bread for the World estimates, a child dies of hunger every five seconds. Sure, you and I can’t save every single one of those children on our own. But the shocking part is that chances are high that you and I have never even tried to save one of them.

We can feel robbery. We can feel someone taking $100 out of our hand and we can picture the teller terrified and faced with what appears to be a gun. We have a lot of trouble feeling an elaborate, unfamiliar $3 billion tax scheme, where a simple click of a mouse can imperceptibly bankrupt someone and the “crook” sits harmlessly at a mahogany desk.

Empathy and action have a lot to do with visibility. As a result, we often fail to empathize with the little people who suffer from the big schemes: the employee with dashed hopes of retirement, the mother who fruitlessly cut corners for her child’s education, the family who must now depend upon food stamps.

This dependency we have on feeling is at the root of refusing to admit that these stories represent an injustice. Our criminal system is littered with sweeping laws enacted after public outcries (e.g. the AEDPA enacted in the wake of the Oklahoma City Bombing), but what that system needs now is reform from the head, not from the heart.

Note: There was a typo in the first version of this post indicating Paul R. Allen was sentenced to 3 months in prison. It has been corrected to reflect the sentence was 40 months. I sincerely apologize for the error. -Suzy Marinkovich

11 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Criminals

    • I am not the activists type. I have never complained to a person in authority so im must be more outraged beyond any thing I’ve seen. I just wrote a draft of a letter I’m sending to the prosecutor of Roy Brown. I e waswill be a thorn in the side of those that for a second think this is ok. Im stunned this is how a
      human being who didn’t hurt anyone turned himself in and could have taken all the money he didn’t just $100.00 b
      ecause he was hungry. Anyone who is connected to Roy being in jail should be ashamed and embarrassed. I will not stop until Roy is free

  1. DiMono is correct. Allen was sentenced to 40 months, not 3 months as you state. I would think you would correct this error, or at least acknowledge it. I hope you aren’t as careless as a lawyer as you were in writing this article. There is an appalling disparity between the sentences that these two men received, but accuracy is still important.

  2. DiMono and Frederick, thank you for your comments. I have corrected and updated the post. It was a typo – I originally meant to type “3 years.” I’ve updated it to accurately reflect the exact sentence of 40 months. I’ve added a note at the bottom of the post to acknowledge the change. I apologize for the error and thank you again for calling me out on it.

  3. “We can feel robbery. We can feel someone taking $100 out of our hand and we can picture the teller terrified and faced with what appears to be a gun.”

    I think this is a poor rationalization. It’s not like this robbery happened to some random and upstanding citizen that many could identify with. It happened at a bank and bank robbers are celebrated for the same reasons given as to why Paul R Allen’s crimes are judged less severe; it’s perceived as impersonal.

    Given that Roy Brown’s priors, with the possible exception of the last offense, seem relatively minor, it’s hard not to conclude some inherent prejudices were involved with a judge whose sentencing appears grossly unfair.

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  5. Mr. brown had a long record, and committed a violent act – robbery. (Domestic abuse too.)

    Such a sentence would have been appropriate for the banker if he had walked into a bank and robbed someone. The amount does not matter. That is the straw man in the argument.

    This comparison is just designed to make people thing the US is unfair, nothing more.

    Also, the meme in the “walking past a drowning child argument” is fallacious. We can’t be held responsible for the plight of people we do not know, especially when we have responded to “Save The Children, Feed THe Children, and “Fill In Th Blank Children” who charge themselves with saving the world, but wont stand behind the US to secure world attitudes on peace and plenty.

  6. I would love to know if someone is appealing, or if some law clinic is even remotely considering helping this poor man.

  7. Very well-thought out article. I might take a different tack, which is that the financial elite own and run virtually all aspects of society, including the courts which slap them on the wrist, while happily committing people with no assets (ie., power to fight back) to the for-profit prison system – that’s owned and run by the financial elite.

    Also, saying we need to act from our heads rather than our hearts doesn’t feel quite right – we need to act from our hearts rather than our head-induced fears, in my opinion. Granted, if by “head” one means intelligence, my argument falters. But as you know, the ability of the vast majority to actually think something through past the initial hearing of a soundbite seems to be non-existent.

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