Before Chris Epps got exposed for being a crook, the former Mississippi corrections commissioner made a lot of sense when he talked about finding the right balance between the crimes committed and the punishments doled out for them.

“We’ve got to decide in this state who we’re afraid of and who we’re mad at,” Epps was fond of saying.

The federal government is mad at the dozen or so folks in Mississippi who participated in the massive pain cream swindle that ripped off insurers, largely government-funded providers, for more than $400 million.

Of the five people sentenced so far, all have drawn prison terms, ranging from 16 months to 10 years.

The attorney for Dr. Brantley Nichols is asking that his client not be required to join them. There are a couple of good reasons for granting the attorney’s request and giving the oral surgeon who grew up in Greenwood an alternative sentence, assuming that he is cooperating with prosecutors.

One, the scope of his participation in the fraud was comparatively modest. He is accused of writing bogus prescriptions for about $700,000 worth of expensive, custom-made pain creams — not a small sum, but still less than 1% of the total amount of the swindle.

Second, a prison sentence might cost Nichols his career and deprive this state, and particularly the Delta, where he is currently practicing, of a specialist already in short supply.

The main reason, though, is the same argument that Epps made about incarceration in general. Locking offenders up is not always the smartest way to deal with nonviolent crimes. That’s especially so with well-educated professionals who break the law. Their time behind bars is a wasted opportunity for the government to get free services while spending less on incarceration.

When U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett sentenced Thomas Spell Jr., a Ridgeland pharmacist who filed more than half of the fraudulent claims, to a 10-year prison term,  the judge told him, “You will have opportunities in jail to help other people and help yourself. It’s not an end to life. It’s a new beginning.”

Nice thought, but there will be no compulsion on Spell to actually do anything behind bars other than look out for himself.

Sometimes, white-collar criminals do voluntarily help their less-fortunate prison mates better their lives. Dickie Scruggs, the former Mississippi trial lawyer who got caught in a judicial bribery scandal, tutored inmates at the Kentucky federal prison where he spent six years, helping them work toward their GED. The experience prompted Scruggs, once he was released, to start an organization that funds efforts directed toward reducing the high number of Mississippi adults without a high-school diploma.

That’s a shining example of the transforming experience that incarceration can occasionally effect. But even that newfound mission for Scruggs might not be the best use of his education and decades of legal experience.

 Had Scruggs been able to keep his law license and been sentenced, instead of to prison, to providing the same number of years of full-time free legal services to the indigent, that would have produced an arguably better payback for the government and for society. The taxpayers would have been spared the cost of feeding and housing Scruggs for those six years, while spreading further the government’s limited funding of legal services for the poor.

In Nichols’ case, a creative sentencing approach might be something like this: Figure out how much prison time would be normally given for his crime. (It’s probably somewhere between one and two years, based on the previous sentences in the case.) Calculate how much income an oral surgeon in Mississippi should average during that time, and require Nichols to provide, over a reasonable period of time, that amount of free dental work to government-insured patients.

Such a sentencing approach to white-collar crime would make the government more than whole on its losses, save on incarceration, serve as a warning to others and do more to positively transform the offenders than prison would, all while keeping families together.

Some may object that it’s unfair to go “easy” on white-collar criminals while jails and prisons are packed with blue-collar offenders. Indeed, too many of the latter are being locked up, too.

But that doesn’t negate the merit of thinking of better ways to punish offenders with valuable skills.

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