Applying the Death Penalty to White-Collar Crime
A thought outside the box
By Gary Carr
One major argument against the death penalty is that it
is morally wrong to take a life under any circumstances. A second is
that it is socially wrong, that racial and ethnic minorities, the poor,
and the poorly connected make up the vastly disproportionate majority of
inmates on Death Row.
A third argument – this one – says that the greater
problem with capital punishment is that it is not functional, since it
fails to act as a deterrent. Exacting the ultimate punishment does not
keep the type of crime for which it is presently applied from happening
again. This argument proposes, instead, that the death penalty be
reserved for cases in which it might actually achieve some measurable
benefits for society.
No deterrent to impulse or passion
Currently, once the criminal justice system acts to
eliminate the individual perpetrator of a capital offense, a large
segment of society may feel a sense of relief, even revenge. But the
death penalty does nothing to reduce the rate of capital crime, because
most of these offenses are committed out of passion or impulse. The
perpetrator never stopped to think, "Hey, I could get the chair for
this," as he shot the cop or the convenience store clerk.
Equally problematic are the deeds of psychopaths. Their
actions spring not from impulse, but from carefully calculated motives.
Here, too, no manner of threat ("Hey, I could get the chair...") will
deter such persons from committing what, to their minds, are very
So, for these two classes of criminals, the fear of the
ultimate punishment does not act as a deterrent. To function properly
and to benefit society, the death penalty should be applied to a totally
different kind of criminal.
The white-collar threat
Where capital punishment would really work is in
combating white-collar crime. Not all white-collar crime, of course.
We're not talking here about the bookkeeper who embezzles 50 grand from
the auto dealership or the building inspector who takes a couple hundred
to look the other way on a bad plumbing job. But for the most egregious
acts of white-collar crime, where the perpetrator's actions affect the
welfare of hundreds, even thousands of people, the death penalty should
be considered an option.
Here is where the deterrent factor comes most reasonably
into play. White-collar crimes of the highest level are dispassionate
and hardly spur-of-the moment. They require forethought and
sophisticated planning. Witness the scandal involving the California
State Insurance Commissioner's office two years ago. Thousands of
citizens were bilked out of millions of dollars through a scheme in
which insurers avoided paying for damages caused by the Northridge
earthquake, thanks to collusion with the Department of Insurance and its
But this scheme pales in comparison to the enormity of
the scam perpetrated by the folks at Enron and their accountants. The
investigation into Enron activities has revealed a pattern of
dispassionate planning and complex, MBA-level strategizing. These were
rational, intelligent people capable of taking long views, and
therefore, the type of criminal who very well might be deterred by the
threat of capital punishment ("Hey, we could get...")
Capital punishment a viable option
As ongoing investigations reveal the extent of corrosive
greed on the part of Enron executives and their cohorts, it would be
reasonable for the public to demand, and the prosecution to consider,
capital punishment as an option. Certainly, these offenses tear at the
fabric of our society in ways that are every bit as dangerous to our way
of life as the killing of a police officer or a store owner. Or the
deliberate crashing of a jetliner into an office building. As such,
these crimes are worthy of society's most serious method of retribution.
One way to restore a sense of responsibility and justice
to the seats of power would be to have lurking in the wings the fear of
ultimate punishment. Let's stop misusing the death penalty. Rather,
let's reserve it for cases where it can do the most good, as a brake on
the actions of those white-collar criminals who would cross the line
into the most outrageous and far-reaching of economic crimes.
Gary Carr (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is a Bay Area writer. Although exhibiting no known psychological
disorders, he often finds himself in a bad mood after reading the paper.