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Cecily McMillan's Lenient Sentence Is Punishment Too Much

The 25-year-old student today learned that she will spend three more months in prison, receiving a sentence of 90 days.
Sketch by Molly Crabapple

Every night, according to her first letter written from detention at Rikers Island, Cecily McMillan rereads lines from historic socialist leader Eugene Victor Debs.

Debs told a Federal Court in 1918, having been convicted of sedition: "While there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free." Debs was sentenced to 10 years.


And indeed, McMillan is — in every sense of the word — not free.

The 25-year-old student today learned that she will spend three more months in prison, receiving a sentence of 90 days (with credit for time served) and five years probation. Compared to a possible seven-year sentence for her conviction for felony assault on a police officer, the sentence is lenient. It remains 90 days and five years probation too long. Her protracted pre-trial ordeal — for knocking a cop's face with her elbow while swinging round after he grabbed her breast — has been punishment too much.

"The court finds that a lengthy sentence would not serve the interests of justice in this case," Judge Ronald Zweibel said today.

While McMillan has avoided a potentially worse fate, the lesson of the young woman's two-year collision with the criminal justice system should not be soon forgotten.

As a university-educated white woman, McMillan has been accorded more privileges in her life than many of the millions of daily victims of US "justice." Nonetheless, as the last criminal case to remain on the docket from an Occupy-related arrest, McMillan's ordeal reflects patterns in the justice system that should not be treated as rarities: Overreaching prosecutors with an imbalance of leverage, a structure lending impunity to police officers, police brutality, and assault and trauma.

The possible conditions for McMillan's comparatively short sentence — still, too long — should also not escape our attention. Unlike most convicts held without bail who make the lonely trip to and from Rikers Island prison to receive verdicts and sentences, often without a supporter to speak of, the courtroom Monday was packed for McMillan.


"Supporters are overflowing in the halls," noted freelance journalist Carol Schaeffer.

43,000 signatures — including those of two formerly imprisoned Pussy Riot members and New York City Council members — were delivered to Judge Zweibel on a petition asking for leniency for McMillan. The very jurors that convicted the activist wrote to the judge asking for a light touch in sentencing — having foolishly not appreciated the weight their "guilty" verdict might carry.

Cecily McMillan jurors' remorse is not good enough. Read more here.

McMillan was an unlikely candidate to run the cruel gauntlet of a protracted felony case, squared against an NYPD officer with a history of brutality — the details of which were ruled inadmissible in her trial. She was also an unlikely avatar for Occupy: As an activist and organizer, she was a moderate social democrat, pushing for system reform.

McMillan and Occupy's more radical participants stood at ideological odds. Her victimization by the NYPD and then the New York court system does not make them friends; it may, however, be the basis for camaraderie. "Which side are you on?" As the old union hymn asks. The fact of Occupy — confined to recent history as it may be — laid the groundwork for the sort of solidarity McMillan has garnered. Hers should not be the only courtroom packed with supporters. Her case should not be a rarity in producing rage at a system stacked against defendants.

Today McMillan will return to a jail cell. Tonight, no doubt, she will reread Debs' famous words. And while she will leave her cage in three months, she will remember that "freedom" is a fragile state indeed when so many souls remain imprisoned.

Follow Natasha Lennard via Twitter: @natashalennard