Friday, October 25, 2013

Corporate Crime: Getting a Clear Picture of our Criminal Justice System

By Matthew Brosmer

Not following federal guidelines or providing an adequate worker-safety environment is unacceptable. Major multinational corporations tout regulations as harmful, decreasing productivity and incentives for future investment, which is rhetoric and not true. It's interesting to see how low-level offenses receive harsh sentences while white collar offenses? Does our criminal justice system protect people from the most harmful sources?

Site of chemical explosion near Waco, Texas.
Reforming the criminal justice system is a must. A real change in the criminal justice system needs to come from holding those who create the most risk in society accountable. Wealthy individuals and multi-corporations create more in social, environmental, and financial damages and systemic risks, hurting tens to millions of people at a time, contrary to a low-level risk person, who is using drugs or committing theft. Most of the time these corporations will pay a fine for their negligence rather than serving time in federal or state prison.

The 1980 Savings and Loan crisis cost U.S. taxpayers nearly 480 billion dollars. These 21st century corporate fraudulent financial strategies cost taxpayers billions and cut millions of people from their workforce. Enron is one of the major financial scandals at the beginning of the 21st century, along with “Tyco, Global Crossing , Qwest, WorldCom, Xerox, Adelphia, MicroStrategy, AOL-Time Warner, K-Mart, and some major banks, such as Citigroup and J.P. Morgan Chase,” according to scholars Jeffery Reiman and Paul Leighton. Also, do not forget about the recent global financial crisis.

Last December, over 100 Bangladeshi garment workers died in a factory fire owned by Wal-Mart. In April of 2013, over 300 Bangladeshi workers died because major U.S. retailers - Wal-Mart, H&M, and GAP - did not have sufficient occupational and safety regulations to ensure worker safety from a building collapse. Also, in April, West, Texas experienced a massive chemical explosion killing 15 people at West Fertilizer Company. Due to lax federal and state regulations and a blatant failure to follow “existing rules,” which 15 people died and thousands in vicinity of the explosion could be exposed to harmful chemicals.

Here in the United States, we also had quite a few mining incidents killing tens to hundreds of people in one tragedy. In The Rich Get Richer and The Poor Get Prison by Reiman and Leighton, they wrote about two mining accidents. In 1989, a Kentucky mine explosion killed 10 people, which they were fined 3.75 million dollars. According to the report, the mining company “repeatedly exposed the mine's work crews to danger and that such conditions were frequently concealed from Federal inspectors responsible for enforcing the Mine Safety Act.” A more recent mining disaster happened in West Virginia called the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster of 2010. The United States Department of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) found in their investigation that “Had PCC/Massey followed basic safety practices, the small methane explosion that set off the dust explosion would have been contained or prevented.” Also, “PCC/Massey intimidated miners to prevent MSHA from receiving evidence of safety and health violations and hazards.”

We need to remove our lenses to get a clear picture of the criminal justice system. It is full of distortions and inconsistencies. Those people convicted of nonviolent offenses such as a drug possession charge or a technical violation should not be in prison for their crime. Our law enforcement should not waste time criminalizing these individuals. The people in corporations making decisions to skirt regulations and lobbying to undermine federal and state regulations create more risk at a higher price across thousands and even millions of people. The financial services industry harmed the whole global financial system by predatory lending, selling toxic subprime mortgages that cost millions of people their jobs and eliminated their life savings. The oil and coal industry benefit from lax environmental regulations to pollute more, which will cost millions more in health care bills and harm lower-income individuals living near the site. I ask, along with Reiman and Leighton, “Is this person [drug user or thief] more evil than the executive who, knowing the risks, calmly makes a calculation that profits for owners are more important than mandated safety equipment for workers?”

Matthew is JPI's research intern.

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