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Madoff Sentence "Legally Suspect And Grossly Unfair"

(AP Photo/Christine Cornell)
I think the 150-year sentence handed down to Bernard Madoff today is legally suspect and grossly unfair when compared to the other sentences handed out to other major corporate fraud figures recently. I think it was the judicial equivalent of a cheap shot, offered by a gutless, intellectually lazy judge who had the luxury of having an angry mob on his side and the knowledge that Madoff already had conceded the case and the notion that he would die in prison.

As a practical matter, whether Madoff got 150 years or 100 years or 50 years or 25 years is of no moment—he'll die in prison. But as a legal matter, there is a great deal of difference between an unsustainable sentence like this one and a reasoned one, like the 50 years that probation officials had suggested. If the sentence is appealed, I suspect a great many appeals court judges would reject it and order a lesser sentence.

None of this condones what Madoff did or the harm he caused to victims all over the world. Madoff is an all-time white-collar crook who really does deserve never again to breathe free air.

But our justice system is not built upon revenge or a thirst for disproportionate punishment. Some murderers get a fraction of the sentence Madoff received today. Worldcom's Bernie Ebbers got 25 years. Enron's Jeffrey Skilling got 24 years. Sam Israel got 20 years. Refco's Philip Bennet got 16 years.

Our sentencing laws are not based upon emotion, or upon what the victims might have done with the money they lost, or upon how famous and powerful they are. I could care less about what happens to Madoff. But we all lose when our judges lose sight of bedrock sentencing principles and instead make easy and popular choices.

More from Cohen: 150-Year Madoff Sentence Is "Symbolic"

Andrew Cohen is CBS News' Chief Legal Analyst and Legal Editor. CourtWatch is his new blog with analysis and commentary on breaking legal news and events. For columns on legal issues before the beginning of this blog, click here. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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