The outrage over Wendy Stevens’ participation in the Kitsap County Superior Court’s felony diversion program, rather than full-scale prosecution, was predictable and understandable. The response, though, tends to ignore other priorities beyond the lightening of a caseload.
Stevens was charged with theft of $8,061.27 from Naval Avenue PTA. The PTA submitted documents suggesting the amount was higher, but the charge reflected how much Bremerton Police could verify.
Many commenters called her diversion agreement a “slap on the wrist.” One asked, “Who said crime doesn’t pay?” That this was Stevens’ second theft charge certainly did not earn her any sympathy. That Stevens wouldn’t do jail time gave figurative chest pains to those who first sought justice (i.e. jail time).
There is room, though, for those who think the $8,000 check and $61.27 in cash the PTA received in restitution was the best possible outcome, like the commenter who wrote, “The most important requirement, restitution to the victim, has been met.” The writer makes a point every bit as fair as those who say the county went soft. This is especially true in a society that over the past few decades has dared to ask, “What about the victim?”
In most criminal cases it’s nearly impossible for the perpetrator to make things whole for the victim. In theft cases it is possible. In this case the deal the attorneys crafted got the PTA at least part of the way there. This year’s PTA President Barbie Swainson told Chris Henry that many in the PTA were relieved, even though they didn’t get the apology they also asked for, at least not in court.
Naval Avenue PTA members might have felt whatever joy justice brings had Stevens been sentenced to jail time, but that joy might have come at the expense of the organization itself. The $8,061.27 it received as part of the diversion agreement might never have materialized, even if Stevens was ordered to pay it, had she gone through a trial and was sent to prison. Instead, the PTA got a check and some cash, fulfilling one of its primary objectives — surviving.
We don’t always get to satisfy our desire for justice and restitution. We sometimes have to pick one or the other. In August 2001 I was working for The Columbian in Washington’s Vancouver and wrote a business story about embezzlement. Much of the focus was the point that it’s often better to go after embezzlers civilly, rather than criminally. You don’t as often get to see the guilty one rotting in jail, but your business stays open.
While you can legitimately argue that there was not enough punishment in the Stevens case, it’s a mistake to overlook the value of the restitution to the PTA.
Two other elements each from the Stevens story and the one I wrote in 2001 match each other, and these are tangents. One is that Stevens is well liked and respected, a common trait in cases like this. In the 2001 story, my sources pointed out how surprised business owners are not so much when they discover they’re losing money, but by who is responsible. In one case, it was a bookkeeper who had been with the company 20 years.
The second point is that this entire episode could have been prevented if the simplest of financial controls had been in place. The person doing the books should not be signing the checks. All entities should be set up so someone tempted to steal will be dissuaded by the perception that someone else will notice. “Checks and balances are not designed to keep a determined thief from stealing,” fraud investigator David Marosi said in the 2001 story. “Checks and balances are designed to keep an honest person honest.”
If you’re in business or run an organization and you want to prevent something like this, I recommend you read the 2001 story. If you have a Kitsap Regional Library card you can read it online for free by going to the ProQuest Washington State Newsstand and searching the term “allmyne.”