Thursday, September 6, 2007

Debt to Society?

MSNBC has an interesting article regarding the ruling of a South Korean appeals court that the CEO of Hyundai Motor Corp. should not serve a three year prison term for being found guilt of embezzling $100 million into a lush fund because he is too important to the country's economy:

"South Korea - An appeals court suspended a three-year prison sentence for Hyundai Motor Co. Chairman Chung Mong-koo on Thursday, saying the tycoon is too important to South Korea’s economy to go to jail for embezzlement.


"Presiding Judge Lee Jae-hong told the packed courtroom that Hyundai Motor has great influence over the nation’s economy and Chung, its hands-on leader, is the symbol of the company.

"'I am also a citizen of the Republic of Korea,' Lee said. 'I was unwilling to engage in a gamble that would put the nation’s economy at risk.'


"But Park Wan-gi, an activist with the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice, denounced the ruling, saying it reinforced the perception that the rich can avoid jail.

"In a similar case, the Seoul High Court in 2005 suspended a three-year prison term for accounting irregularities handed to Chey Tae-won, CEO and chairman of South Korea’s leading oil refiner, SK Corp., now SK Energy."

Hyundai is currently the world's sixth largest car manufacturer and, combined with Kia, constituted 72% of automobiles exports, which, as a whole, represent 13% of total national exports.

The larger question here seems to be whether it is a valid principle (abstracting from particular South Korean law, etc.) that persons who are extremely important to a society (let's take for granted that he is) in one way or another (economically, culturally, diplomatically, etc.) should be spared jail time for a crime of which they were found guilty assuming that such a sentence would be detrimental to the common good of the nation.

I suppose it would depend on how one looks at punishment. If the goal of punishment is to reform the person for his own good, then the decision would be that between the private good and the common good. If punishment aims at retribution, then such a decision would be unjust by definition. If punishment aims at fulfilling a debt to society incurred by means of the crime, then it seems as if the question would be between which will provide society at large with a larger "pay off" - jail for the offender or the various benefits that they would otherwise be able to generate for society.

Missing from that paragraph is the corresponding cost of commuting a sentence even if there are substantial gains to be had for society, e.g., moral outrage or discouragement on the part of common people at the unequal way justice handles citizens.

Thoughts? Comments?


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