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Judge handing down sentence]


Get tough on corporate crime

(This editorial, co-authored by Aaron Freeman and Craig Forcese, Founding Directors of Democracy Watch, appeared in The Toronto Star, Thursday, November 17, 1994 on page A31. Ranked the No. 4 Under-reported Story of 1994 by Project Censored.)  For more details, go to Democracy Watch's Corporate Responsibility Campaign webpage.

The latest round of Tough Talk on Crime has revived all the old campaign targets and slogans. Mimicking the U.S. "War on Crime," the Canadian version features such perennial U.S. favourites as "three strikes you're out" and tougher sanctions on youth crime.

As a political ploy, Tough Talk is clever. Being "soft" on crime -- a charge that cuts deeply among politicians of all stripes -- implies sympathy for criminals and insensitivity to victims. And Tough Talk is politically safe, targetting people with little economic or political power. They are "those people" with whom "respectable folk" rarely interact in their day-to-day lives.

In this War on Crime, however, one category of criminal is almost completely ignored: the "white-collar" corporate criminal. Even defining corporate violence and theft as crimes is considered mild heresy by many people.

While Statistics Canada issues detailed yearly updates on crime in the streets, few details are available on crime in the suites. The results of the few studies that have been completed, however, are shocking. One report in the early 1980s indicated that more than half of the 850 fatal on-the-job accidents occurring annually in Canada were the result of unsafe or illegal working conditions, placing the annual toll of workplace deaths in this category alone on par with street homicides. And these figures do not include "lingering deaths" resulting from worker and community exposure to workplace and environmental hazards. Studies in Ontario in the mid-1980s indicated that 135,000 employees were often needlessly exposed to hazardous workplace pollutants. In addition to the human tragedy, researchers have estimated that the economic cost of workplace deaths ranges between $5.7 billion and $20.9 billion, or 1.7 to 6.3 percent of the Canadian GNP.

Conservative figures from the United States suggest the financial cost of corporate crimes such as monopoly-pricing, bribery, illegal mergers, tax evasion and fraudulent advertising is 10 times the financial loss caused by robbery, burglary, larceny and auto-theft combined. If this 10 to 1 ratio applies to Canada, then corporate crime costs the Canadian consumer and taxpayer upwards of $30 billion annually.

Yet, despite the enormous toll of corporate crime on our lives and livelihoods, white collar criminals are treated very differently than street criminals. There is no call for a "three strikes you're out" policy toward corporate repeat offenders. In fact, white-collar criminals, on average, receive jail sentences three-and-a-half times shorter than street criminals. And while just over one million charges were laid against street criminals in 1988, only 23 criminal prosecutions were conducted in the two years following the enactment of the 1986 Competition Act, which was supposed to curb corporate concentration and anti-competitive practices.

Clearly, there is a selective treatment of crime within the Canadian justice system. When a bank teller is shot and killed while resisting a robbery attempt, the killer receives a stiff jail-term. Yet no such standard was applied to the executives of asbestos giant Johns-Manville, the corporation responsible for poisoning thousands of asbestos workers across North America, and the perpetrator of what a 1984 Ontario Royal Commission report on the asbestos-related deaths of 68 miners called "a disaster ranking with the worst in the world."

Are the Johns-Manville executives -- who, since 1935, were fully cognizant of the deadly risks associated with asbestos -- any less worthy of prosecution than the pistol-wielder? Both acts were committed with full prior knowledge of the risks involved, yet the corporate crime went unpunished.

For executives, because of the permissive treatment of corporate crime, penalties for corporate violence are frequently seen as a mere cost of doing business. Often, the cost of corporate crime prevention is considered too high when compared to the cost of a public relations attempt to make morally repugnant practices acceptable. Consider, for example, the fact that Exxon spent more money publicizing its clean-up of the Exxon Valdez oil spill than it spent actually cleaning up the oil.

If Tough Talk politicians were truly serious about their War on Crime, they would also consider these modest proposals to curtail corporate crime:

Treating corporate violence with the same blind justice as street violence challenges the above-the-law status that corporations often enjoy. However, these measures would begin to correct the biases of our two-tiered system of justice. And if we truly want to feel safe in our homes and communities we should seek protection from all crime, not just the crimes of "those people."

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