No one should take pleasure in the personal pain suffered by Patrice Tierney, who admitted to filing false tax returns for her fugitive brother and last week was ordered to serve a 30-day prison sentence.

But the sentence imposed last week by U.S. District Judge William G. Young on the wife of North Shore Congressman John Tierney struck the right balance between justice and mercy. Young ordered her to serve 30 days in prison followed by two years of supervised release, including five months under house arrest.

Yes, the sentence was harsher than the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred M. Wyshak Jr., had recommended. Under the plea deal reached with Tierney last fall, the prosecution had requested 90 days' house arrest plus two years of probation.

But the judge didn't buy — and shouldn't have bought — the argument that because Tierney is the wife of a congressman, the public humiliation she endured was punishment enough.

John Tierney's position as a congressman is not the result of some unavoidable, outside force. He aggressively sought the position, and sought it again last fall even after the charges against his wife became public. Both Tierneys have chosen to lead a public life and have enjoyed the power and perks that come with it. They should not now be allowed to claim that their public standing amounts to some kind of unfair disadvantage or punishment.

It was refreshing to hear Judge Young also dispute the claim by Patrice Tierney's attorney, Donald K. Stern, that his client was a good person who had made a mistake.

"This isn't a mistake," Young said. "People aren't guilty of tax crimes because they make mistakes."

Indeed, the judge noted the contradiction between Tierney acknowledging "full responsibility" for her crimes last fall, and Stern's claim that it was simply an innocent mistake made by a good person.

Despite all that, the judge also extended mercy. Tierney's jail term could have been longer. Her five months of house arrest will allow her to leave the house to work, attend religious services and care for her 86-year-old mother.

This was not punishment for punishment's sake. This was, as Judge Young pointed out, the kind of penalty that a similar tax offender would receive.

"There must be an actual sanction," he said. Indeed, there must be so that the public will believe there is equal justice for all under the law.

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