Should the United States retain corporate criminal law? For more than a century, pearl-clutching abolitionists have decried the conceptual puzzles and supposed injustices of corporate criminal liability. Meanwhile, starry-eyed proponents of corporate criminal law have celebrated a system that they believe can deliver justice for victims and effective punishment to corporate malefactors.
The abolitionists won long ago—through craftiness rather than force of reason. By arguing that the United States should get rid of corporate criminal law, abolitionists staged a debate that presumes corporate criminal law in fact exists. It does not, and it never has. The greatest trick the abolitionist ever pulled was convincing everyone to think otherwise and then duping their opponents into fighting for the status quo.
Criminal justice has four distinctive features. It 1) utilizes uniquely demanding procedure to 2) target the worst offenders with 3) the harshest penalties in a manner that 4) expresses society’s deepest moral condemnation. The United States’ purported system of corporate criminal justice lacks all four features. The biggest corporate criminals routinely sidestep all criminal procedure and any possibility of conviction by cutting deals with prosecutors, trading paltry fines and empty promises of reform for government press releases praising their cooperation. The real question is not whether the United States should retain corporate criminal law, but what it would take for the United States to have a corporate criminal justice system in the first place.