Saturday, November 17, 2007

Carnival Mirror of Crime

“These CEO’s, man…If you’re that ruthless, you’re a scary dude. I tell you, now when I walk past a little gang banger, I don’t even blink. But if I see a [W]hite dude with a Wall Street Journal, I haul ass. Before I walk past the Arthur Andersen building, I cut through the projects. If you cut through the projects, you may just lose what you have on you that day. I ain’t never been mugged of my whole future." –Wanda Sykes, comedienne (originally appeared on Tongue Untied, and borrowed from Paul’s Justice Page )

The insidious nature of corporate greed really isn’t news to us, is it? From Sicko’s powerful commentary on the corruption underlying America’s HMOs, to the infamous implosion of Enron, white collar crime pervades our global culture. But you can’t really critique corporations without pointing a finger at the very law that actually enables these questionable business practices. I mean if top Canadian and American government officials weren’t so busy shaking hands with these powerful entities in the name of "I scratch your back and you scratch mine"ethics, perhaps policymakers would reform the current system that appears to be safeguarding white collar corruption.

How does the law enable corporate criminals? Well, Dr. Paul Leighton and Dr. Jeffrey Reiman provide some very convincing answers regarding the American criminal system. Reiman’s compelling The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice, and Leighton’s companion website, Paul’s Justice Page, both provide thought-provoking analyses on the subject.

At the heart of their arguments, corporate crime essentially thrives in a judicial landscape in which they are structurally favoured (Well, even I could have told them that). Reiman reasons that the disparities between the rich and the poor, the conditions and overuse of the American penitentiary system (ie. the prison industrial complex), the accessibility of guns, and the flawed drug policy (ie. War on Drugs) are four of the main sources of crime in America. I would say his most compelling argument is how he likens American criminal law to that of a carnival mirror. If the popular consensus of the typical criminal is that of a young minority living in poverty, than a distorted criminal system can only follow. According to Reiman, such a system even “weeds out the wealthy” as the poor are more inclined to be arrested, charged, convicted, and have longer prison sentences than that of middle-class or upper-class criminals.

And Leighton’s stance follows Reiman’s scenario quite closely in, A Tale of Two Criminals: We’re Tougher on Corporate Criminals, But They Still Don’t Get What They Deserve. He effectively compares and contrasts the experiences of two very different criminals— petty thief, Leandro Andrade, and white collar culprit, Andrew Fastow. During his criminal career, Andrade was involved in a series of small-time, non-violent heists involving shoplifting from a K-mart and residential burglaries to support his drug habit. Since his last crime would mark his third straight conviction triggering the Three Strikes law under California’s criminal system, Andrade was destined to spend over 50 years in an American penitentiary as a result of stealing under $200 worth of goods. Fair enough because he’s just another dirty criminal, right?

Well, let’s look at Mr. Fastow’s story. I don’t think he really needs an extensive introduction so I’ll try to make it brief. As former chief financial officer of Enron, Fastow embezzled over $200 million from employee investments and pensions as a result of fraudulent banking transactions. He was eventually indicted on 109 felony counts including obstruction of justice, conspiracy, and securities fraud—not to mention the emotional anguish he caused thousands of former employees as he financially crippled their futures. When it was all said and done, Fastow entered a plea bargain that would get the lucky guy a mere 10 years behind bars.

I guess Leighton’s critique is pretty obvious. Neither Andrade or Fastow are innocent here but do the ends really justify the criminal means?

**NOTE: I will make sure to follow-up this post from the perspective of the Canadian criminal system. Also, I only included a very brief overview of Reiman's and Leighton positions. For greater analysis on these issues, I would recommend reading Reiman's book and Leighton's site.


Divinyl said...

Really interesting stuff. I haven't followed the links yet, but I will make sure I do. As someone who works in the field of criminal justice (nothing to do with arresting or sentencing mind you!), it's a big thinker. And I agree that 'small time' criminals, and particularly drug users, are marginalised by society to such an extent that it can seem that they are offered little other option. The examples you offer are shocking indeed.

--Bamboo Blitz-- said...

Yes, both Leighton and Reiman really do build compelling arguments. You should try to get your hands on Reiman's book because he makes a series of really intriguing claims on the subject. Whether you buy everything he says or not, it's still an interesting read.

Mark Dykeman said...

Have you ever read Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point? When I listened to the audiobook I heard a story about how New York City, under Rudy Guiliani's mayorship, reduced crime in the subway system by cracking down very hard on minor crimes like vandalism and "stealing" subway rides by forcing your way through the turnstiles. The thought, apparently, was that focusing harsh punishment for petty crimes that had been previously ignored would be a major deterrent to other types of violent crimes.

For whatever reasons, crime rates for "big" and "small" crimes dropped in New York City in the 1990's. The Freakonomics guys tried to partially attribute the reduction in violent crimes to women's accessibilty to abortion. Whatever.

However, it sure seems like heavy punishment for small crimes as a deterrent to larger crimes isn't really working, is it?

--Bamboo Blitz-- said...

No, I haven't read The Tipping Point but I'll make sure to check it out sometime. As for Freakonomics, I actually think there is some logic to his whole Roe vs. Wade = lower crime rate claim. If underpriviledged young mothers have this choice, then less children would have to grow up in poverty where opportunities for a post secondary education, extra-curricular activities, and one day earning a middle-class income may be bleak.

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