Last week, a Texas jury recommended that Kenneth Payne, 29, spend 16
years in jail.
Payne's crime? Stealing a Snickers bar from a Tyler, Texas grocery
store on December 17, 1999.
When Smith county Assistant District Attorney Jodi Brown was asked by
the Associated Press how she could justify 16 years for the theft of a
Snickers bar, Brown replied "It was a king size."
A king size Snickers bar it was. Retail price: $1.
In Texas, if you steal property worth less than $500, it's a misdemeanor
punishable by a fine of $500 with no jail time. The case was brought as a
felony because Payne was a habitual offender. He had ten previous
convictions -- including one for stealing a bag of Oreo cookies -- and had
spent seven years in Texas prisons. When he shoved the king sized Snickers
bar down his pants he was on parole for felony theft.
Still, the guy was a petty thief -- he stole cookies and candy bars.
Compare Kenneth Payne's plight to those of a group of white-collar and
corporate criminals who also were sentenced this month.
Hoffman-LaRoche Ltd. pled guilty for their roles in an international
conspiracy to suppress and eliminate competition in the vitamin industry
-- what the Justice Department calls perhaps the largest criminal
antitrust conspiracy in history. The prison terms: four months, three
and one-half months, three months and three months. (The four executives
were also fined anywhere from $75,000 to $350,000).
Also this month, three cruise line employees were sentenced for their role
in dumping pollution into the Alaskan Inland Passage from a Holland
America cruise ship. The three employees were each sentenced to two years
unsupervised probation and fined $10,000.
These are not unusual sentences for white-collar criminals. In fact, it is
unusual to see a white-collar criminal do time.
So, how can it be that Kenneth Payne is doing 16 years for stealing a one
dollar Snickers bar while the former executives of some of the world's
largest corporations get off with a few months in prison -- after being
convicted of a crime that cost consumers hundreds of millions of dollars?
It's like Richard Pryor said -- in our country -- justice means "just
us" -- regular folks -- and not them -- the people who call the shots --
who end up in the slammer.
This double standard permeates every aspect of our criminal justice
The other day, for example, we were listening to National Public Radio,
and up popped a debate about whether felons should be allowed to
participate in a democracy.
On one side of the debate was Mark Mauer of the Sentencing Project. Mauer
pointed out that in 46 states, you can't vote if you are in prison. In 16
states, if you were convicted of a felony -- even if you get out of prison
-- you are disenfranchised for life. Mauer estimated that 13 percent of
adult black men cannot vote as a result of a felony conviction right now.
On the NPR show, Roger Clegg, an attorney with the right-leaning and the
slightly misnamed Center for Equal Opportunity (Linda Chavez' think tank),
made the argument that felons shouldn't be allowed to vote. "If you aren't
willing to play by the rules, then you shouldn't have a say in making the
rules," Clegg said.
"And people who have been convicted of felonies, which are by definition
serious crimes, shouldn't be given a role in deciding how the government
should be run," Clegg said.
After hearing this, we called up Clegg to ask what he thought about
banning corporate criminals -- like BASF and Hoffman LaRoche, who had
engaged in perhaps the most egregious criminal antitrust conspiracy in
history -- from "deciding how the government should be run." (Corporations
of course don't vote, but they do give money to elect candidates, they
lobby legislators and law enforcement officials, and they mold public
opinion through their public relations efforts.)
Gone was Clegg's unwavering absolutism.
After much humming and hawing, Clegg admitted that "it makes sense to
limit the political role of corporations when they have shown that they
are not worthy of trust." But he quickly added that "because individuals
and corporations are fundamentally different, you can't just apply the
rules equally." Clegg questioned whether the First Amendment would allow
prosecutors to strip corporations of their "rights" to influence how the
government should be run. Clegg, of course, raised no such question when
it came to stripping individual felons of such "rights."
What about the death penalty? In a new book, Actual Innocence: Five Days
to Execution and Other Dispatches from the Wrongly Convicted (Doubleday,
2000), Jim Dwyer, Peter Neufeld, Barry Scheck, report that in the 24 years
since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court, about 620
individuals have been put to death -- but 87 condemned persons had their
convictions vacated by exonerating evidence.
Most likely, innocent lives have been taken. All this while really big
recidivist corporate criminals like Exxon, Royal Caribbean, Rockwell
International, Warner Lambert, Teledyne, and United Technologies --
criminals truly deserving of the corporate death penalty, get away with
slap on the wrist fines.
Bottom line: big corporations and white-collar criminals are getting away
with it, while the political and media elites pull the wool over our eyes.
Think of that next time you pick up a Snickers bar.
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime
Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based
Multinational Monitor. Mokhiber and Weissman are co-authors of Corporate
Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe,
Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999, http://www.corporatepredators.org)
(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman