by Rena Steinzor, Professor of Law, University of Maryland Carey School of Law, and President of the Center for Progressive Reform. Steinzor is also author of the new book, Why Not Jail? Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction from Cambridge University Press.
Candice Anderson was 21 when she lost control of her Chevrolet Cobalt in a moving stall caused by a defective ignition switch, drove into a tree, and killed her fiancé. Two years later, in 2006, Texas police charged her with reckless homicide. Her parents liquidated their retirement account to pay for her defense. She pled guilty, spent five years on probation, paid $10,000 in fines, and had to live with the shame of the crime on top of the grief of the accident. In 2014, General Motors (GM) sent Anderson a letter explaining that her accident was the company’s fault. A judge in Texas cleared her criminal record a few weeks ago.
The Department of Justice has opened a criminal investigation into GM’s conduct and the next attorney general will decide whether and how to charge the company. President Obama’s nominee, Loretta Lynch, will need to make a break with the misguided policies of her predecessor, Eric Holder, when the GM case hits her desk.
Under Holder, the Justice Department has handled white collar criminal cases involving the largest companies in the world with “deferred prosecution agreements,” a form of settlement that does not require the defendant to acknowledge any criminal culpability, no matter how heinous the crime. Instead, these special deals require the defendant to pay large sums of money in civil penalties. Given their ample financial resources, such sums end up being an affordable cost of doing business.
Deferred prosecution agreements undermine the straightforward application of white collar criminal laws that punish everything from racketeering and fraud to deadly violations of health, safety, and environmental laws. The Obama Justice Department has entered roughly twice the number of deferred prosecution agreements as the George W. Bush administration and has been rightly criticized for embracing the corrupt notion that some firms may be “too big to jail.”