Yesterday, Dharun Ravi was sentenced to 30 days in prison for using a webcam to spy on his roommate at Rutgers University, Tyler Clementi, and inviting his friends to join him. The next day, Clementi committed suicide.
Ravi could have received up to 10 years in prison. In addition to the 30 days, he was sentenced to 3 years of probation, counseling about alternative lifestyles, and a $10,000 fine to be paid to a fund for victims of hate crimes.
Much has been made of the fact that Tyler was gay, and as a result, Ravi was convicted of hate crime charges in addition to the underlying crimes, which included invasion of privacy and evidence tampering.
In my opinion, Tyler’s orientation is not what makes this crime so bad; the way that Dharun treated him was cruel and wrong no matter what the sexual orientation, race, gender, or other demographic characteristics of the people involved. To ridicule someone to your friends, to spy on them when they want to be alone, and invite your friends to join in the spying, violates that person’s rights, and it is bullying.
For this reason, I think that this sentence is on the lenient side. Our society seems to be very reluctant to treat mental/emotional harm as seriously as physical harm. Crimes that involve psychological torment tend not to be punished as harshly as those involving physical injuries, even though, in reality, they can be just as damaging, if not more so. An example of this is the Phoebe Prince case, in which the students who bullied Phoebe to death reached plea deals and avoided jail time. Although Ravi’s actions may not have been the only cause, or even the main cause, of Clementi’s suicide, they certainly were a cause to some extent. And even if Clementi was still alive today, there is no question that he would have suffered significant emotional harm from Ravi’s actions. The legal system needs to treat psychological harm as seriously as physical harm, and by giving such a lenient sentence, the judge in this case did not achieve that.
5/22 update: Ian Parker at the New Yorker makes some interesting observations about the role that Ravi’s lack of remorse played in his sentence. I actually admire that Ravi stuck with his belief that his actions did not constitute a crime, instead of apologizing, flip-flopping, or trying to take back what he did. He even refused to take the government up on its offer of a plea deal with no jail time, saying, “I’m never going to regret not taking the plea. If I took the plea, I would have had to testify that I did what I did to intimidate Tyler, and that would be a lie.” Ravi may very well be telling the truth when he claims that he did not act out of anti-gay bias or to intimidate Tyler. But the legal system should not be as concerned with the motivations behind Ravi’s actions as it is with the actions themselves. No matter his motives, Ravi did the things that he did intentionally (it’s not as if his fingers slipped, causing him to accidentally tweet mean comments and turn his webcam on), and those actions violated Clementi’s privacy rights and caused him significant harm.