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Friday, August 23, 2002

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 reasonable acts.

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 commissioner.

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 (carrpool@pacbell.net) is a Bay Area writer. Although exhibiting no known psychological disorders, he often finds himself in a bad mood after reading the paper.