Dharun Ravi was sentenced late this morning, to 30 days in jail, three years probation, community service, counseling, and a $10,000 fine.
Is this justice?
Many people are saying no. Compared to the ten years (or, depending on who you ask, several times that) which he could have received, it certainly seems light, and it’s left a lot of folks I respect quite angry. But I’m not sure I’m among them.
Let me start by saying that I consider what Ravi did a serious crime. He spied, he attempted to spy again, he tried to share private sexual acts with the internet. He did all this in such a way as to tip off his victim to the abuse, and he did it with a giddy indifference to the pain he was causing. In the wake of Clementi’s suicide he compounded his crimes by attempting to destroy evidence and asking others to do the same. And even after he was tried and convicted he displayed an ugly, dismissive refusal to come to terms with his acts.
In an impact statement read to the court this morning, “MB” — the young man who Ravi watched with Clementi — offered a powerful account of the “embarrassment, emptiness and fear” Ravi had put him through:
For the past year I was filled with anxiety and hurt as the trial approached. I felt like I was continuously walking in a mine field, waiting for the sudden explosion. I kept my secret from my family because I did not want them to go through the same emotional turmoil that I was experiencing. With each news article I read or saw on television, this feeling of uncertainty and unsteadiness only became worse.
From the beginning, MB said, he “just wanted [Ravi] to acknowledge that he had done wrong and take responsibility for his conduct, but instead Ravi and his lawyers compounded his trauma:
I do not believe that he has taken responsibility for his conduct, and to this day he seems to blame me for the actions he took. His attorney made it very clear at the trial as did Mr. Ravi in his gratuitous media appearances that I was to be his scapegoat. He wants everyone to believe that his conduct was prompted on each occasion by his concern that I may be a thief and his possessions were at risk as a result of my presence. He even went to go so far as to say that when he learned about Tyler’s death, he thought I might have been involved so videoing me might have been a good thing.
Ravi does not bear responsibility for Clementi’s suicide, but he does bear responsibility for his actions both before and after that night, and those actions have been appalling.
But is he getting off easy? I’m not sure.
As disgusting as what Ravi’s actions were, for him to even have been arrested for them is extremely unusual. Untold numbers of college students have treated gay roommates as badly or worse and never been made to pay for their crimes at all.
In contrast, Ravi has been forced to leave college. He has been entangled in the legal system for nearly two years. He’ll go to jail for 30 days, spend three years on probation, and pay ten thousand dollar fine on top of the presumptive hundreds of thousands his family have paid in legal bills. And unless he somehow manages to get it set aside, he’ll have a felony record for the rest of his life.
Compared to what he could have received, this may not seem like much. But I think it may be enough, and here’s why.
First, there’s the question of prison itself. While I’m not an abolitionist, I do believe that in most cases sentencing someone to prison does them — and society — more harm than good. I can’t imagine that Ravi would walk out of a year in state prison a better person or less likely to re-offend.
And then there’s the question of setting an example. As I said above, I don’t regard Ravi as a particular outlier. The kind of crime that he engaged in is prosecuted rarely not because it is rare, but because it’s not treated as a serious crime. Moderate, rather than draconian, punishment is the best way to change that perception.
Finally, there’s the issue of culpability. As the judge noted in his sentencing hearing, Ravi wasn’t convicted of causing Clementi’s death, and in fact the evidence for a link between Ravi’s acts and Clementi’s suicide is largely inferential. I’m not saying that Ravi didn’t contribute to Clementi’s decision, but I will say that we don’t know exactly how — or how much — he did.
Ravi did something horrible, and his life has been pretty much ruined. I think it’s enough.