Books, Crooks and Punishment

Posted by jlubans on October 23, 2020

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Caption: Book Thief, REALLY?

Usually I write about leadership and followership and other items of organizational life.
But, now and then I stray into different pastures.
Today’s blog is about book crime and punishment; specifically, about how judges sentence book thieves.
I last wrote about book thieves in 2013, “Book Thieves and Other Library Scoundrels” and "More Scoundrels, Knaves and Varlets.
Invariably, victims (librarians, teachers, cultural leaders) who testify against book thieves, call for harsh penalties – at least for some jail time.
Just as invariably, judges tend toward leniency regardless of how egregious the crime.
A recent story about rare book thievery (an inside job) at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh epitomizes this judicial attitude: one of the two thieves was sentenced to three years’ house arrest and 12 years’ probation and the other received four years’ house arrest and 12 years’ probation.
In California there was a similar outcome: the crook’s six-month sentence to county jail, was suspended, and he was placed on probation and ordered to pay restitution to the University of California and to booksellers he had tricked into buying stolen goods.
So, none of the “perps” went to jail.
Why all this judicial forgiveness? Why are jail sentences often suspended and fines reduced?
Is it because the crooks come clean and offer to return not just the "caught red-handed" loot -but other thefts yet to be found out?
In other words, prosecutors make a deal with the criminal in order to retrieve as many stolen books as possible.
Or, is it because book thieves tend to be sad sacks; misfits on society’s fringes thereby earning judicial empathy?
Or, does the judge buy the thief’s story that he was never in it for the money; rather he succumbed to a psychological need, however twisted.
In the case of the Pittsburg heist, the thief used the money to pay his children’s private college tuition.
What a dad!
Did that evoke judicial sympathy?
Or, is stealing a book - snatched in the dark with no weapon beyond a cheese sandwich and a thermos of coffee while hiding in the toilet, waiting for the library to close – far removed from an armed stick-up?
And, then there’s the laxity of the victimized library along with the complicity of the buyers of stolen books which might pressure the judge into not making too big a deal of it.
Sure, some collectors buy the offered item and believe it to be an honest transaction.
Others - especially antiquarians - can smell a rare book, can sense rarity by its heft, can tell in a single glance at the binding and paper that something is too good to be withdrawn, as purported, and serendipitously found in a Friends of the Library Booksale.
Indeed, is the rare book collector truthful when he claims the stolen book was stamped as “Withdrawn” from X Library? Is the presence of that simple rubber stamp – easily purchased at any office store - truly exculpatory?
It’s one thing to believe the “Withdrawn” stamp for books like some of mine – yes, I have run across, with tears in my eyes, a few of my books withdrawn and offered up for .50 cents.
It’s totally another to believe in the “Withdrawn” stamp inside what is likely a unique book. A knowledgeable book collector might want to confirm that book’s provenance. Due diligence in such a case is easy: call and ask the withdrawing library to confirm.
So, it gets complicated for the judge.
While balking at judicial leniency the letters to the court never spell out what the “harsh” punishment should be.
Here are some suggestions about the degrees of severity and implied incarceration.
An Inside job, a betrayal of trust, should result in a greater punishment.
I'd add a year for the “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” insider. Such a disguise may manifest itself as either a fuss budget or an oleous priest of high culture who keeps readers away from precious books to do his dark deeds with a free hand.
Mutilation (slicing out of pages, illustrations, maps, tearing off book covers and otherwise disturbing the integrity of the book), should increase the punishment.
There’s a difference between a shlub who steals from a provided list of books and an antiquarian who knows the library’s ins and outs and who may have carte blanche to library vaults. Judicially, the former gets off with probation while the latter goes to jail.
The professor who steals a book deserves a greater punishment than the undergraduate thief of a textbook.
Finally, book theft damages the public good. There should be a cost assessment of the societal damages – from inconvenience to intellectual loss – and figured into the sentencing.

Copyright (all text) John Lubans 2020

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