One would have to be exceptionally naïve to believe that the American criminal justice system doles out punishments fairly. Justice is supposed to be blind, but the reality is that your economic status, the color of your skin, where you live, and who you hire as an attorney are more likely to determine your fate than the facts of your case. A series of cases juxtapose how the system behaves toward the wealthy criminal versus how the system treats the less advantaged members of society.
First, there is the case of Roy Brown, a homeless Black man, who entered a bank in December 2007 and pretended to have a gun. He held up a teller for $100 although she offered him more. The next day, Mr. Brown was overcome with guilt over what he had done, so he surrendered himself to the police. He explained to authorities that he had needed the money to stay in a detox center. He had nowhere else to go and he was hungry. Mr. Brown was sentenced to 15 years in prison for first-degree armed robbery.
Contrast his case with that of Paul R. Allen, representing your average wealthy, white collar criminal. In 2011, he was found guilty of $3 billion in securities fraud. He was sentenced to 3 years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiring to mislead investors. This was the result despite the fact that at least 2000 people lost their jobs as a result of his actions. His sentence was reduced, because he agreed to testify against a co-conspirator. Nonetheless, the justice doled out to Roy Brown and Paul R. Allen reflects just how unjust the system really is. Some crimes receive disproportionately harsh sentences, particularly if their perpetrators fit a certain profile. Other crimes, particularly white collar crimes, harm thousands of people in one act, yet receive relatively light sentences.
Another story of getting the justice you pay for in the criminal justice system comes this recently as the Department of Justice announced that it was in negotiations with the lawyers for Jeffrey Skilling, one of the architects of the Enron scandal. Apparently, the DOJ and Skilling’s lawyers may find a way to significantly reduce his 24-year sentence for conspiracy, insider trading, making false statements to auditors and securities fraud. At the time of his sentencing, the chair of the Enron Task Force, Sean Berkowitz, stated that the lengthy sentence Skilling received was necessary as a deterrent to other corporate criminals. He also pointed out, “The Enron fraud is as large and serious as any other fraud in this nation’s history.”
In somewhat encouraging news, the rate at which corporate misbehavior is being prosecuted by the DOJ in 2012 has risen substantially. Even from 2011 to 2012, the number of fines imposed on nefarious corporate conduct more than doubled. However, these punishments occurred at the corporate level. Individuals who actually committed that fraud, conspiracy or tax evasion are not held responsible. They are not criminally liable for all of the people they harm. Bankers can rip off American soldiers with improper foreclosures, and their consequence will merely be a fine and restitution. As Norm Prattis, author of “Juries and Justice,” told Mint Press:
“Mortgage fraud came close to crashing the economy in ways that ordinary drug abuse never will. Criminal defense lawyers marvel at the lenience of white collar sentences. Reducing white collar sentences sends the wrong message to pinstripe thieves — break the law, profit, have fun, take your slap on the wrist, and then do it all over again. In the meantime, blue collar convicts grow resentful when they pull decades’ long sentences for lifestyle crimes.”
So, even as corporations receive more fines, the white collar criminals who commit the malfeasance are not brought to justice. These criminals tend to be overwhelmingly white, wealthy, and well-represented. Contrast this reality with the report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission that found that black prisoners receive sentences that are essentially 20% longer than white prisoners for the same crimes. Nowhere are these disparities more evident than in the cases of Tyrone Brown and John Alexander Wood. Mr. Brown, a poor Black man, participated in a $2 armed robbery when he was 17. No one was hurt. He received a sentence of 10 years on probation. However, while on probation he tested positive once for smoking marijuana. The judge immediately revoked his probation, and sentenced him to life in prison. The wealthy and well-connected Mr. Wood, on the other hand, killed a prostitute by shooting him in the back. Mr. Wood also received a sentence of 10 years on probation. He repeatedly tested positive for cocaine use and was even arrested for cocaine possession, though the charges were never prosecuted. The judge, who was also the exact same judge who presided over the Tyrone Brown case, not only did not punish Mr. Wood, he ended up telling him that he didn’t need to take drug tests anymore.
The Department of Justice has been under fire for decisions like allowing HSBC to cater to drug cartels and terrorist networks with only a fine as a consequence. Matt Taibbi describes Americans as afflicted with “outrage fatigue” when it comes to the prosecution of all of the white collar crimes Wall Street has committed. Perhaps that is why the HSBC news received relatively little response from citizens. However, this gross neglect of people who steal the retirement savings of thousands of people in favor of focusing attention on people who steal TVs and stereos needs to at least come with an acknowledgement that justice in the United States is bifurcated: one for rich people and one for poor.