The Silk Road Lives On
Do severe punishments actually deter crime? And if so, to what measure? Are those likely to commit crimes deterred more by the threat of severe punishment or the likelihood of getting caught? These are questions legislators constantly consider when evaluating the potential changes that need to be made to the criminal justice system. The case of Ross Ulbricht serves as powerful evidence that severe, long and inhumane prison sentences do nothing to deter criminal activity and ultimately succeed only in robbing the individual of any chance at reform or rehabilitation.
The research paper published by Minnesota House Research Department, Do Criminal Laws Deter Crime? Deterrence Theory in Criminal Justice Policy: A Primer, describes deterrence as:
..the theory that criminal penalties do not just punish violators, but also discourage other people from committing similar offenses. Many people point to the need to deter criminal actions after a high-profile incident in which an offender is seen to have received a light sentence. Some argue that a tougher sentence would have prevented the tragedy and can prevent a similar tragedy from taking place in the future.
In the case of United States vs. Ross Ulbricht a.k.a Dread Pirate Roberts a.k.a Silk Road, the decision made by the judge demonstrated that she was a big proponent of deterrence theory as a result of excessive punishment. She used it as justification for her decision to sentence him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The rationale behind this sentencing is as concerning as it is ineffectual.
In 2011, Ross Ulbricht, a twenty six year old idealistic libertarian from Texas, developed the Silk Road website with the hope that it would serve as an empowering platform for individuals to securely, anonymously and safely obtain and sell illegal substances. While small at first and only catering to small-time drug dealers interested in shuffling around mushrooms and pot, it grew quickly into an enormous online drug emporium. The site, while embracing the quintessentially libertarian ideals of returning power to the individual, was also operating under extremely illegal pretenses.
My interest in Silk Road, its founder, and, ultimately, the case made against him was fueled by pure morbid curiosity initially. Most journalists and writers have depicted Ross’ shocking rise to infamy and his ultimate demise as a “Breaking Bad”-like saga, with the protagonist, motivated initially by pure intentions to make the world a better place, ultimately succumbing to corruption by power and money.
Young, idealistic Ross viewed government as a coercive entity and believed a citizen must have economic freedom — freedom from taxes and government regulations — to be truly free. He believed that the platform he created would grant individuals that freedom; the freedom to obtain the illegal drugs that the government had (arbitrarily?) decided were not fit for human consumption.
Ross’ story is fascinating; a young, well educated man from a good family starting out as a small time mushroom dealer and ending up a powerful drug lord, overseeing the exchange and distribution of thousands of illegal substances to millions of users, ruling over the dark corners of the internet. Even the tale of Ross’ ultimate capture by Federal agents is lurid and fascinating in its own right — the lengths that some DEA and Federal agents went to in order to capture Ross in the act, including the corruption of a few agents in that pursuit.
Ross’ story and the Silk Road saga itself perfectly fits the narrative that U.S. law enforcement, engaged in its endless war on drugs, likes to exploit when warning teenagers of the dangers of drugs: kids: if you start using pot you’ll end up dead or, even worse, a heroin dealer. Of course, the story is never really that simple.
The myriad of published interviews with Ross’ friends, family members, and other affected parties help explain what initially motivated him to create this website. However, what still remains unclear to some is whether he actively embraced the unintended consequences as they started coming to light. Whether, like Walter White, he gleefully accepted the idea of allowing young teens to overdose on the drugs his website sold; if he really did solicit the murders of several people. Or, if, as the site grew and grew, everything just simply started spiraling out of control and all the while, Ross felt powerless to stop it.
Nick Bilton, author of American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road, poured through millions of chats between Ross — or “Dread Pirate Roberts,” the persona he adopted while operating Silk Road — and the site’s various administrators, dealers, and other unsavory characters. Bilton maintains there is no way Ross isn’t guilty; he knew what was going on the entire time, he ordered hits on people and displayed no remorse until after he was caught. Ross’ defense attorneys argued in court that at a certain point, Ross transferred over the “Dread Pirate Roberts” administrative privileges over to some other unknown user and was not responsible for the site after that.
To some, the extent to which he is guilty is still a question — to many, he was unjustly imprisoned. I’m not interesting in arguing the intricate details of this case or his measure of guilt or culpability, but will instead focus on the length of the prison sentence. My argument is that it was an unjust sentence even if he was fully guilty of every crime of which he was accused.
In 2015, Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to serve two consecutive life terms in prison, without the possibility of parole for the trafficking and distribution of narcotics; a truly draconian punishment. One of the accusations initially brought against him was for soliciting murder; a suggestion he “demonstrated a willingness to use violence…soliciting six murders-for-hire in connection with operating the site, although there is no evidence that these murders were actually carried out,” according to prosecutors.
This accusation was mentioned in court proceedings but never brought against him as an actual charge, as bodies were never discovered and the murders were never proven to have actually taken place. The fact that this unfounded accusation against Ross was brought forward in court, in front of the jury, but then never officially levied against him as a charge, very likely put the idea in the juror's minds that Ross was not only a drug dealer but also a murderer (again, no actual evidence of that exists).
Additionally, part of the trial consisted of family members of those users who overdosed on substances sold on his site; heartfelt emotional statements made about how Ross changed their lives forever and ultimately was responsible for killing their beloved son/daughter. Such an accusation is patently absurd — while the situations are certainly tragic, there is simply no justifiable reason to blame these tragedies on Ross. Those who died would likely have found alternate means by which to attain the drugs they wanted — and possibly would have met the same fate.
Investigative journalist Max Daly said in a scathing tweet condemning the absurd sentencing,“Blaming Ross Ulbricht for people overdosing on drugs bought from Silk Road is like blaming peanut farmers for people dying of nut allergies… Life in jail with no parole for selling drugs to people who wanted drugs… Insane.”
It seems quite obvious, that these emotional appeals and tragic stories affected the judge’s ultimate decision on the severity of his sentencing.
Ideally, the goal of the criminal justice system should be focused not only on reducing crime by punishment and deterrence, to an extent, but also by rehabilitating the criminal offenders. The judge’s decision was not just — it was a statement to those watching the trial unfold from afar. A warning to potential criminals, discouraging them from creating Silk Roads of their own.
And it didn’t even work.
In her final statements, the judge demonstrated her utter contempt for Ross. She mentioned how privileged he was, why it made no sense for him to commit these crimes, and why, due to the high profile nature of this case, it was incumbent upon her to show the world that this type of brazenly criminal behavior would not be tolerated. The decision to send Ross away to prison for life without parole was made very deliberately as an effort to deter all other wannabe cyber criminals from starting their own online drug emporiums. The judge gambled with his life, hoping that this extreme punishment would yield long term results— and prevent Silk Road 2.0.
Nearly one month after the original Silk Road site was shut down by the feds, Silk Road 2.0 popped up. It was operated for a short period of time by a young man in the UK who was later caught and sentenced to five years and 4 months in prison, according to Vice news. It wasn’t long after that site was shut down that even more online drug marketplaces started appearing on the scene.
Cyber criminals have been forced to get smarter, sink deeper into the abyss of the darknet and decentralize their platforms to disperse power, making it more difficult for law enforcement officials to track and capture offenders.
According to the 2018 US Department of Justice DEA National Drug Threat Assessment, the threat of online drug marketplaces continues to grow:
Although successful law enforcement operations arrested, convicted, and sentenced the creator of Silk Road, the concept of a dark net marketplace was not forgotten. After the shutdown of Silk Road by law enforcement, the dark net community created more marketplaces, learning from the downfall of Silk Road’s pioneer. Currently, law enforcement faces many challenges when it comes to these marketplaces. Dark net marketplace administrators are becoming more savvy.
Out of the ashes of the failed Silk Road 2.0 rose Agora marketplace, an online superstore for drugs and “services;” a site which has since been shut down due to security concerns. Others such as AlphaBay and Hansa both became huge black market “Amazons” until they were also shut down in 2017. Recently, the most popular sites, Dream Market and The Wall Street Market, are filling the void that Silk Road left behind and continue to evade law enforcement detection (for now).
Ross’ Silk Road ushered in the dawn of a new drug dealing age. He figured out a way for people to buy drugs safely online instead of meeting a stranger on a street corner. It’s a bell that can’t be unrung. Ross discovered a way for users to safely and anonymously purchase illegal substances that, in all likelihood, they would have purchased anyway. It would be naive to believe that such a revolutionary change and innovation in the drug market would simply disappear, never to be imitated again.
As Brian Doherty succinctly says in a 2017 article in Reason, “All the detailed sleuthing to find Ulbricht…were ultimately for naught. Drugs are still sold, drugs are still shipped, drugs are still consumed. Silk Road’s encryption-and-bitcoin model is being used to traffic more illegal substances than were ever moved over Ulbricht’s website…Ulbricht pioneered a new way of meeting a constant human desire, and that approach is unequivocally better, in every way, for sellers, users, and society at large.”
Prosecutors in Ross’ case claimed, in a letter to the judge, that a “harsh sentence would act as a deterrent to others thinking of setting up online markets.” Clearly that didn’t work.
Ross will spend the rest of his natural life in prison, played like a pawn by the criminal justice system, to serve as a warning signal to the world’s populous — don’t you dare do what Ross did or you will see the same fate. The United States justice system believes that the man who merely facilitated the safer exchange of money for drugs deserves to rot in prison to “deter” crimes that are now happening with even more frequency.
Evidence produced by the National Institute of Justice points to evidence suggesting that longer sentences don’t do much to deter future crime and that, rather, the certainty of being caught is a significantly more effective form of deterrent than the punishment itself. According to NIJ, research shows that the chance of being caught is a “vastly more effective deterrent than even draconian punishment.”
The fact is that, in the case of Ross Ulbricht, draconian punishment didn’t effectively deter criminals from engaging in the exact same criminal activities that Ross engaged in online. It has effectively just pushed them down deeper, forced them to adapt but did not expunge them from existence. The dark web’s marketplaces are still alive and well; now they’re just harder for law enforcement officials to detect. The excessive punishment bestowed upon Ross Ulbricht was simply a showy act, a virtue signal, an emotional response from a judge who clearly didn’t understand that what Ross invented wouldn’t simply disappear. Like it or not, people will always want to consume intoxicating substances and will find ways to get them. For daring to invent an entirely new (arguably much safer) way to buy and sell drugs online, Ross got two consecutive life terms with no possibility of parole. In this case, the system only succeeded in robbing a young man of his life, his potential, and the chance for reform.
Now 35 years old, Ross continues to appeal this sentence. He writes about his personal reformation, looking back regretfully at the decisions he made when he was a young, idealistic liberation in his mid-twenties. He hopes to convince the world of his reform and his deep regrets for ever having broken the law.
In a heartfelt plea to the judge before receiving his sentencing, Ross begged,
“I’ve had my youth, and I know you must take away my middle years, but please leave me my old age. Please leave a small light at the end of the tunnel…a chance to redeem myself in the free world before I meet my maker.”
Ross deserves a chance at redemption and I firmly believe that the world would be a better place if we could grant all nonviolent criminal offenders that same chance.