Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison on Tuesday, a sentence much more lenient than the 10-plus years prosecutors had requested and a fraction of the 78- to 98-month sentence suggested by federal guidelines.
The sentence is the latest chapter in the sordid and sometimes silly saga involving the ex-governor, his wife Maureen (who awaits sentencing) and the diet-supplement purveyor who plied Virginia's first family with goodies worth $177,000.
I suspect a lot of people who read somewhere that the former governor "faced" a decade behind bars will be surprised that he got only two years. (For years I have waged a one-man war against the use in news stories of the "faces a gazillion years in prison" formulation, which almost always reflects a wildly unrealistic estimate of a likely sentence.)
People who follow sentencing, however, saw this coming. On Monday, Professor Doug Berman of Ohio State University Law School offered this prediction on his blog: "I share the view that it is unlikely McDonnell will get either probation as he wishes or the 10 years in prison sought by the feds. As a betting man, I would put the over-under line at around three years."
Is the sentence fair? I think so, and so should activists who complain that America sends people to jail too often and for too long. As the ACLU says on its website: "The U.S. has an addiction to incarceration that costs taxpayers billions of dollars and does little to bring down crime rates."
Yet I suspect that a lot of opponents of over-incarceration won't be cheering McDonnell's sentence. Like Wall Street financiers who run afoul of the law, crooked politicians tend to bring out the Archie Bunker in people who otherwise believe that the quality of mercy should not be strained and that putting even violent criminals in prison is a waste of taxpayers' money. Cost-benefit analysis tends to be overwhelmed by a passion for punishment mixed with a bit of reverse snobbery.
McDonnell deserved a prison sentence of some duration, because imprisonment uniquely inflicts the sort of shame that crooked bankers and politicians should be made to experience. But a two-year sentence serves that purpose as effectively as a 10-year sentence. You can't believe otherwise and call yourself an opponent of over-incarceration.