Efforts to reform our criminal justice system were hijacked in Congress at the last minute by an effort to weaken the ability to prosecute corporate and white collar crime.

Our criminal justice system is in need of reform. Incarceration in the U.S. has grown dramatically while the crime rate has fallen. There are over 2.2 million people incarcerated in federal, state, and local prisons today compared with 1 million in the late 1980s and half a million in the 1970s. Our incarceration rate of over 700 people per 100,000 of population is the highest in the world. With 4.4% of the world’s population, we have over 22% of the world’s prisoners. There is also great variation among the states with Louisiana having an incarceration rate (over 1,400 people per 100,000) over three times that of Minnesota and Maine (less than 400 people per 100,000). [1]

The cost of incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels has been growing along with the prison population and is currently roughly $80 billion a year. This rapidly growing cost is unsustainable for many states and is squeezing public spending in other areas.

However, since 1990, the overall crime rate in the U.S. has fallen by 45% (i.e., from roughly 5,900 per 100,000 residents to about 3,250). It is at its lowest rate since the late 1960s after peaking in 1980. [2]

Another key problem with our criminal justice system is its racial bias. In terms of incarceration, 60% of those in prison are racial or ethnic minorities. The incarceration rate for Black adult men (4.7% of their population) is almost seven times that of White men (0.7%) and over 2.5 times that of Hispanic men (1.8%). Over their lifetimes, 1 out of every 3 Black men will spend time in prison, while only 1 in 20 White men will and 1 in 6 Hispanic men.

These were the problems that were ostensibly the focus of a broad, bipartisan coalition that formed in early 2015, although priorities undoubtedly varied. Fiscal conservatives wanted to reduce costs, increase efficiency, and reduce government spending. Human rights and liberal groups wanted to reduce racial inequities, including in sentencing for non-violent drug crimes. Libertarian groups wanted to reduce the prison population in order to reduce the size of government and its control over people’s lives.

The initial targets for reform were elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses and giving judges more discretion in sentencing. The coalition worked closely with members of the U.S. Senate in drafting a bill and had the strong support of the President. [3]

After months of work by the bipartisan coalition and on the eve of a vote on the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Hatch demanded that provisions weakening the ability to prosecute white collar crime be added to the bill. This, apparently, was the hidden agenda of the business conservatives, led by the Koch brothers, who had participated in the coalition. The Senate refused to add these provisions and proceeded to pass the bill.

The bill then went to the House where Judiciary Committee Chairman Goodlatte threatened to kill the bill unless provisions weakening the prosecution of white collar crime were added. As a compromise to move the sentencing reform ahead, these provisions were added along with some other criminal justice reforms, such as easing re-entry into society after completion of a prison sentence. It is unclear when and if this compromise bill will move forward.

The Department of Justice and the White House are strongly opposed to the provisions weakening the prosecution of white collar crime. They maintain their opposition despite four meetings with a senior White House official by Koch Industries’ (the Koch brothers company) Senior Vice President during the time the compromise was being negotiated in the House. This is the kind of access and power the economic elites in our society have to our elected officials.

Basically, the white collar crime provisions would eliminate the longstanding legal principle that ignorance is no defense for breaking the law. They would require prosecutors to prove that defendants knew they were committing a crime, not just that a crime was committed. Moreover, they would institute a much higher standard of proof for what constitutes knowledge of guilt than has been used by judges for decades. [4]

Over-prosecution of white collar crime is not a problem unless you are a corporate executive who pushes the limits of the law. On the contrary, the American public strongly believes that white collar criminal prosecution is too lax. The fact that there were no significant prosecutions after the 2008 Wall Street debacle is exhibit one.

Federal prosecutions of white collar crime are down to 2% of federal criminal cases from 7% in 1980. The proposed provisions would not only reduce prosecutions further, it would give white collar criminal defendants a vehicle for engaging in extensive litigation (e.g., about who knew what when) and likely allow many of them to escape liability for serious crimes. Plausible deniability would clearly become a get out of jail free card, if it isn’t already.

Senator Warren released a report in early 2016 that documents 20 examples of cases where white collar crime prosecution was inexcusably weak. They range from ignition switch problems in GM cars to foreign currency market manipulation by a group of the largest financial corporations. She notes that the differential prosecution of street crime versus white collar crime “has a corrosive effect on the fabric of democracy.” (page 1) In some of her examples it appears that large corporations and their executives have decided that lax enforcement and weak punishment make the penalties for breaking the law an acceptable cost of doing business. Senator Warren promises to provide annual updates on responses to white collar crimes. [5]

The gaping chasm between get tough on crime incarceration for street crime and the lax punishment of white collar crime is an important factor in the cynicism and anger of the American public. The undermining of a bipartisan, thoughtful effort to reform over-incarceration and its racial bias by economic elites trying to weaken prosecution of white collar criminality is symbolic of their power to bend public policy to their benefit. This underscores how difficult the task of reclaiming our democracy will be and the vigilance it will require.

[1]       Wikipedia, retrieved 7/21/16, “United States incarceration rate” (

[2]       Wikipedia, retrieved 7/21/16, “Crime in the United States” (

[3]       Steinzor, R., 5/11/16, “Dangerous bedfellows: The stalemate on criminal justice reform,” The American Prospect (

[4]       Steinzor, R., 5/11/16, see above

[5]       Staff of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Jan. 2016, “Rigged justice: How weak enforcement lets corporate offenders off easy” (


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