We learn our lessons at the courthouse


The sentence that concluded the criminal prosecution of lawyer Edward Vincent in Edgartown District Court on November 4 continues the court’s incomprehensible but relentless efforts to damage its standing in the eyes of the law-abiding public.

Judge H. Gregory Williams reviewed sentencing recommendations from the defendant and the prosecuting attorney and made choices.

Mr. Vincent admitted that he stole nearly $600,000 of his clients’ money, diverting that money to serve his own ends. The money has been replaced and returned to the clients he betrayed, though that restitution was not made by Mr. Vincent but by his wife with the help of a friend.

Mr. Vincent told the court that if the case had gone to trial sufficient facts had been adduced to prove two charges of larceny against him. Two separate charges of fiduciary embezzlement were dismissed.

The judge decided that Mr. Vincent’s punishment would be probation for two years, no actual criminal finding for one year, and if Mr. Vincent behaves during that year, the larceny charges will be dismissed.

The judge took note of Mr. Vincent’s criminal record, of which there is none. The judge scolded the lawyer and ordered Mr. Vincent to perform 100 hours of community service.

What are the lessons that ordinary Islanders can take away from all this? For one, it is the clear perception that whether one steals $600,000 from customers who had every right to expect behavior that is beyond reproach from their legal counsel, an officer of the court, or whether it’s the theft of $200 worth of stereos to sell for money to buy drugs, whether one imports heroin and cocaine to retail to Islanders, or whether one assaults a wife or a neighbor, the consequence will not be onerous.

People in law enforcement will tell you that drugs are common and widely used, and that drug business and drug use are linked to criminality of a variety of sorts. Thievery, violence, and abuse are associated with drugs, and the social cost is significant. Yet, despite broad agreement on this and on the toll that other apparently less squalid types of criminal activity exact from the community, we cannot argue confidently that the courts are helping to stem the criminal tide.

In many places in the nation, civic life is lived atop an underground criminal culture, which is accepted as the price of daily existence. It may be suppressed, the thinking goes, but not extinguished. The civic costs in human and financial terms must be assumed and paid. Here, small, intimately acquainted with one another, and apart we might reasonably aspire to reduce the cost to the community of criminal behavior.

But apart from politicians, who in his right mind would say that criminal behavior is susceptible to defeat? Not the police. But, with the court’s help, chances for improvement are better here than elsewhere. And so, it is numbingly sad therefore that the courts are not doing their share.

That’s the second lesson that will be taken from Friday’s sentencing of lawyer Vincent.

Continuances without findings, minor jail time, probation, community service, and, all too common in the experience of ordinary Islanders, recidivism are hallmarks of the community’s experience of the justice system.

The evidence that a criminal defendant here will straighten out after conviction, course-correct while on probation, and walk the straight and narrow from now on is hopelessly unpersuasive. The smartest conclusion to draw is that leniency and hopefulness are not what we want from the courts.

In this small, inconvenient community, when there is the chance to exercise greater control over criminal behavior than seems possible elsewhere, and when law enforcement has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to catch and prosecute misbehavior, what’s wanted from the courts is something more than probation, hopefulness, community service, and recidivism.