Dharun Ravi has been sentenced to 30 days in jail for setting up a webcam in the Rutgers University dorm room that he shared with Tyler Clementi so that he and follow students could watch while Mr. Clementi had sex with another man. Ravi’s actions resulted in convictions for 15 different offenses, including invasion of privacy and intimidation with anti-gay bias. The case became internationally prominent because Clementi committed suicide a few days after learning about what Ravi had done. A link between Ravi’s actions and Clementi’s suicide was never established, and Ravi was not convicted of causing Clementi’s death and surely Ravi could not reasonably have foreseen Clementi’s suicide. However, his death focused attention on the challenges and bullying that many gay people have to confront.
Ravi’s sentence also illustrates the challenges that judges confront when they have to punish behavior that is perhaps as insensitive and immature as it is illegal. People all too often engage in behavior that is demeaning, intimidating or ignorant. But if all such activity were deemed to be criminal, jails would be more crowded than urban freeways. Moreover, at the outer edges the notion of “equal justice for all” is challenged by punishment that differs according to the circumstances of particular victims. Ravi is fortunate that the judge sentenced him to a short jail term rather than a few years in prison. But given the difficulty of drawing rational lines between ignorant and criminal actions, the judge probably got it about right. Whatever the answers to motivating people to accept others for who and what they are, the criminal justice system is unlikely to provide them.