150 Years

One hundred and fifty years jail time for Bernard Madoff is a good thing.

To listen to the victims of his swindle, or read their words, is to
appreciate the very far-reaching ways in which Madoff's quiet crime
has wreaked havoc on the lives of thousands of families.

Federal District Judge Denny Chin was absolutely right in denouncing
Madoff's crimes as "extraordinarily evil," and giving him the maximum
sentence. Punishment is no substitute for prevention, but the sentence
provides a modicum of justice to the victims and will exert some
modest deterrent effect against future potential swindlers.

The 150-year sentence is headline grabbing, but what should surprise
us is not that Madoff got such a long sentence, but that other
corporate criminals escape with light sentences or no criminal
prosecution at all.

In August 2006, U.S. Federal District Court Judge Judith Kessler
adjudged the leading tobacco companies to have engaged in a 50-year
long conspiracy

to deceive the public about the health risks of smoking and to addict
children to tobacco. Millions in the United States -- and many more
around the world -- have died as a result of this conspiracy. But you
won't find any tobacco executives in jail for this "extraordinary

Twenty-five years ago, poisonous gas escaped from a factory
run by the chemical company Union Carbide in
Bhopal, India. Many thousands died, many more were debilitated or
badly injured, and the plant site remains polluted. Despite charges of
culpable homicide, executives from Union Carbide (now merged into Dow
Chemical) were never tried or sent to jail.*

In 1989, the Exxon Valdez hit a reef

in Prince William Sound Alaska. Eleven million gallons of crude oil
spilled onto 1,500 miles of Alaskan shoreline, killing birds and fish.
The spill ruined the livelihoods of thousands of Native Americans,
fishermen and others. The captain was convicted of a misdemeanor and
sentenced to community service. Exxon pled guilty to misdemeanor
violations of federal environmental laws. No executives went to jail.

Victims of horrendous human rights abuses

and environmental destruction
caused and abetted by oil companies operating in Burma
(Unocal/Chevron), Nigeria (Shell and Chevron), Ecuador
(Texaco/Chevron) and Indonesia (Exxon), among other places, have --
with lawyers and international solidarity campaigns -- waged heroic
and increasingly successful efforts to obtain monetary compensation
for the wrongs they have suffered. But there's no prospect of CEO and
executive perpetrators of those wrongs being criminally prosecuted.

For two decades, the multinational oil companies and the giant coal
producers have engaged -- and continue to engage -- in a prolonged
to deny and discredit climate
change science. In doing so, they have imperiled the planet and its
people. Paul Krugman, properly, calls this treason
the planet. But while execution is the highest penalty for treason
against country, treason against the planet won't even get you the
equivalent of a parking ticket.

What to make of the disparity between the appropriate sentencing for
Bernard Madoff and the get-out-of-jail free approach for other leading
corporate criminals and malefactors? There are a few lessons and

First, the Madoff case differs from many of these other examples of
corporate wrongdoing in that the individual perpetrator is so closely
related to the victims. Although he was handling billions of dollars,
Madoff had a skeleton staff, and he had personal connections with many
of those he swindled. As a result, the victims and the public's anger
is visceral and very targeted -- not directed at an amorphous giant

Second, Madoff's victims have power. They have the ability to hire
lawyers, and to organize for redress and retribution. Corporate crime
victims in poor communities, or in poor countries, generally do not
have this kind of power. Nor do those who will fall victim in the
future to consequences of actions carried out today.

Third, and relatedly, the penalties for financial crimes are generally
much stiffer than for other corporate crimes. The New York Times

has an interesting feature comparing Madoff's sentence to other
white-collar, financial criminals, many of them convicted of Enron-era
crimes; Madoff's sentence is much longer, but the others received
stiff penalties as well. By contrast, it is very rare to see a felony
prosecution for corporate killings.

Finally, and most important, one of the signal powers of corporations
is their ability to influence the law and culture so that their most
heinous acts are not considered criminal. Knowingly addict millions of
children to a deadly habit? Not a crime. Collaborate with military
regimes and destroy lives and livelihoods in poor countries? Not a
crime. Endanger the planet with greenhouse gas pollution -- and then
mobilize politically to block emergency efforts to save the earth? Not
a crime.

The world is a little bit more just today, after the sentencing of
Bernie Madoff. When other corporate culprits are sentenced comparably,
the world will be a lot more just.

*Clarification: Executives from the U.S. parent company were charged
in India, but never appeared, and are officially "absconders" from
justice. Executives in India have been charged; their trial, which
began in 1992, is ongoing.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.