The words of the judge today at Dharun Ravi’s sentencing were “Our society has every right to expect zero tolerance for intolerance.” Which is a sentiment that is, at least for some, easy to agree with. But what “zero tolerance” means in a legal sense is open to discussion. In Ravi’s case, in terms of the decision handed down today, “zero tolerance” means 30 days in prison, 300 hours of community service, three years’ probation, court-ordered counseling, and $10,000 to be paid to an organization that helps victims of hate crimes.
Ravi has already spent 20 months in what the judge called “exile” since Clementi’s death. Possible consequences for Ravi included 10 years in prison or being deported to India, where he has citizenship. The judge refused both possibilities, and also questioned the classification of Ravi’s actions as a “hate crime,” stating that “I do not believe he hated Tyler Clementi.” Before the trial, prosecutors allegedly offered Ravi a plea bargain which, if he had agreed, would have meant no jail time at all. He refused it. Ravi’s mother claims that he’s lost over 20 pounds since the legal ordeal began.
Many gay activists and many of Clementi’s supporters are outraged by how light Ravi’s sentence has turned out to be compared to what he could potentially have received. The question of how much legal punishment Ravi received may be more of a question of the workings of the US legal system than a statement about how our culture perceives anti-gay bias, bullying, or hate crimes. Legally, Ravi isn’t on trial for Clementi’s suicide; he can’t be held responsible for his death. Although Ravi was found guilty of 15 different counts, many of them have to do with invasion of privacy and the idea of “intimidation.” Some of the charges against him are only even punishable by probation. Our experience of the US justice system sometimes feels like the punishment visited upon the perpetrator of a crime should be relative to the pain or injury inflicted upon their victim. But in real terms, it breaks down to what can be proven, what may or may not be intended, and whether we can apply concepts of reasonable doubt to our worst-case conception of a defendant.
The function of the American justice system, on some level, is not only to punish past crime but to discourage future crime. For many (or even most) people, judicial sentences are meant to prevent that person from committing crime again, either through harsh punishment or rehabilitation or some combination of the two. Ravi’s crime was cruelly and inhumanely exposing the personal life of another human being to ridicule. It seems objectively fair to call it “bullying.” But what’s the best way to handle Ravi’s specific case that will discourage the things that he did? Unlike drug dealers or serial rapists, it’s maybe inaccurate to argue that Ravi needs to be kept behind bars for years or he’ll otherwise repeat his crime over and over again. It seems unlikely that Ravi will ever broadcast a video of an acquaintance in a sexual situation again, after the past 20 months. Will a harsher sentencing of Ravi change the behavior of someone like Brandon McInerney, who shot and killed classmate Lawrence King in their classroom? Will Ravi’s punishment change the gay bullying epidemic in America, or just how we feel about it?
There are at least some who feel that asking Ravi and his sentence carry the weight of the pervasive cultural problem that is the intersection of homophobia and violence oversimplifies the issue, and that it’s therefore a fair sentence. Will sending Ravi to jail for longer than 30 days erase the cultural context which made what he did possible?
Law is not going to solve social problems of bigotry and homophobia by singling out scapegoats and punishing them for all of our sins. If you are angry that no one is being held responsible for a young man’s suicide, don’t look to the court system—look around, and look in the mirror. Mitt Romney is responsible for it, anti-gay preachers are responsible for it, North Carolina voters are responsible for it and so is Dharun Ravi. So are all of us.
Nonetheless, the outcome of this case is important; largely because a young man died young and senselessly. And because the idea of “sending a message” isn’t just something we’d like to assuage our fear and grief; some kind of message, somehow, does need to be sent, because it’s maybe never been more evident that thousands of kids across the country, gay or bully or somewhere in between, need to hear that their lives are worthwhile and the loss of them is unspeakably awful. How does one do that with a trial? How does one do that at all?
The legal narrative of Dharun Ravi probably isn’t over; there will likely be an appeals process. The narrative of Tyler Clementi is over forever, because he’s dead. Whether the former can ever be made to properly respond to the latter fact is still unclear.