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This country has two laws
The rich get richer and the poor get prison

August 30, 2002 | Pages 6 and 7

IN THE last few months, a string of business scandals has put the issue of corporate crime on the front pages. This left George W. Bush in the uncomfortable position of denouncing his buddies in Corporate America--and pledging to "get tough." Even Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, the former CEO of Alcoa, got into the act, proclaiming that "we ought to hang [corporate criminals] from the very highest branches."

Who do they think they're kidding? "U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft makes five guys do a perp walk and thinks we're dumb enough to assume that's the end of corporate fraud," wrote columnist Molly Ivins. "I am cynical enough to believe that there is a class of people in this country called 'Too Rich to Go to Prison.'"

There's good reason to be cynical about a society where there's so obviously one law for the rich and one law for the poor. The rich regularly get away with looting millions and, even if they're caught, get nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Meanwhile, ordinary people who are convicted of petty street crimes or minor drug violations can go to jail for years--even decades.

ERIC RUDER looks at the shocking difference in the treatment of crime in the streets versus crime in the suites.

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CORPORATE EXECUTIVES are always ready to take credit for the good times. That's why they "deserve" their multimillion-dollar salaries, we're told. But when things turn sour, they're experts at the blame game.

Enron CEO Ken Lay, who "earned" $200 million in compensation in the past three years, blamed the company's cooked books on his fellow executives. When Bridgestone/Firestone tires started causing accidents on Ford Explorers, Ford blamed Bridgestone--and Bridgestone blamed Ford, its own union workforce and even Explorer drivers for "underinflating their tires."

No wonder it's unusual for CEOs to face criminal charges--even when they steal millions or cut short the lives of workers and consumers. No Bridgestone executive faced a murder charge for the 150 people killed by the company's defective tires--even though they knew about the problems as early as 1994.

For the rare corporate criminal who does go to trial and gets convicted, "prison" life can be more like an extended rest at a resort. Diana Brooks, the former CEO of Sotheby's auction house, was sentenced in April for fixing sales of art. She is serving her six-month sentence in "home confinement"--in her 12-room, $5 million co-op on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

For the roughly 2 million people behind bars in the U.S., Brooks' "incarceration" would be a dream come true. Among those entering prison in 1991, about 70 percent earned less than $15,000 a year when they were arrested, and 45 percent didn't have a full-time job. One in four prisoners is mentally ill, and 64 percent never graduated from high school.

The criminal justice system is like a spider web, ensnaring the weak and defenseless while the powerful break free. Take Rene Landa, a Latino man serving a 27-year-to-life sentence under California's "three strikes and you're out" laws. His first two strikes were residential burglaries. One dated back to 1972.

Rene got his third strike in 1995--for stealing a spare tire. "My case in its entirety was a setup," said Rene. "Starting from arresting officer to the end. I was literally run over by the injustices of the system…I agreed to a drug test, which apparently came back clean. And I was not on parole. An hour after my arrest, they rolled in a tire and said I stole it. I immediately knew I was doomed because the victim happened to be a sheriff working at the Huntington Park courthouse who mysteriously found a tire."

Last year, Darryl Best--a 46-year-old father of four with no criminal history--was locked up in maximum security for 15 years to life under New York's Rockefeller laws that mandate minimum sentences for drug offenses. Best signed for a FedEx package delivered to his uncle's house that turned out to contain cocaine. At Best's sentencing hearing, even Judge Michael Gross said that the punishment was "clearly out of line for the offense."

The "war on drugs" in the U.S. has turned out to be a war against poor Blacks and Latinos. While African Americans accounted for 13 percent of all drug users in 1995, they represented 35 percent of arrests for drug possession, 55 percent of convictions and 74 percent of those sentenced to prison.

But these issues don't trouble apologists for the criminal justice system. The disparities in the treatment of corporate crime and street crime are justified, they say, by the violence and scale of street crime.

The statistics tell a different story. About 20,000 people were murdered last year, and another 1.6 million were assaulted--many by people they knew. About $17 billion was taken by thieves, and violent crime cost another $105 billion in stolen property, medical expenses and lost productivity.

But the scale of corporate crime is vastly greater. A conservative estimate of the number of deaths from occupational disease--caused by exposure to carcinogens and other toxins on the job--each year is 50,000.

And this number doesn't include people who die in a workplace incident. Between 1984 and 1992, 95,000 workers died on the job, and 21.8 million suffered injuries that forced them to lose at least one day's work--and at least a third of these deaths and injuries resulted from corporate violations of workplace safety rules.

The median penalty paid by an employer following an incident resulting in serious injury or death? Just $480, according to an AFL-CIO report.

Companies like General Electric have been found guilty of defrauding the government dozens of times, but they're still doing business with Uncle Sam. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of poor people found guilty of petty nonviolent offenses are serving prison sentences.

There's only one conclusion you can draw about justice in America. The rich get richer, and the poor get prison.

The CEO serial killer

LEE IACOCCA is known as the dedicated CEO who rescued Chrysler from the brink of bankruptcy in the early 1980s. But before he headed Chrysler, Iacocca was the Ford executive in charge of the Pinto. The Pinto was rushed onto the market to compete with the Volkswagen Beetle--even though Ford knew that its gas tank could explode in a rear-impact collision.

Ford executives reasoned that it would be more expensive to retool their production line to outfit Pintos with a $5 addition than to let 180 people die fiery deaths every year. This "reasoning" was contained in an internal memo describing a cost-benefit analysis that attached the price of $200,000 to every lost life. Ultimately, 500 people died unnecessarily in Pintos--and many more suffered painful burns that left them maimed for life.

Lee Iacocca deserves the title "serial killer" as much as "CEO." But of course, he never spent a day in jail--because he's a corporate criminal, with a license by law to kill on a vast scale.

Cost of the "law-and-order" mania

AS PRESIDENT, Bill Clinton pushed through "law-and-order" measures that would have made his predecessor--George Bush Sr.--blush. Clinton's $30 billion crime bill stressed prison building, capital punishment, longer prison terms--and putting 100,000 new cops on the streets to tackle the "crime epidemic."

But if politicians really cared about protecting life and limb, they'd fund thousands more inspectors to staff the Occupational Safety and Health Administration--which at current staffing levels will inspect each American workplace once every 100 years.

They'd push laws to punish corporate polluters that are responsible for the particulate dust that prematurely kills 64,000 people each year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

These are much greater threats to public safety than street crime. And if the politicians cared about stopping street crime, they would stop shredding the social safety net--so there would be fewer desperate people in desperate circumstances, the root cause of street crime.

But fighting corporate crime would bring politicians into conflict with the corporate honchos who bankroll their campaigns. That's why the politicians prefer to go after the weak and defenseless.

The social costs of the last decade's "law-and-order" mania are devastating. "While we were busily jamming our prisons to the rafters with young, poor men, we were simultaneously generating the fastest rise in income inequality in recent history," writes Elliott Currie, author of Crime and Punishment. "At the same time, successive administrations cut many of the public supports--from income benefits to child protective services--that could have cushioned the impact of worsening economic deprivation and community fragmentation…The prisons became, in a very real sense, a substitute for more constructive social policies…Or, to put it more starkly, the prison became our employment policy, our drug policy, our mental health policy."

"I wonder what justice means"

ANTHONY PAPA served 12 years in Sing Sing prison for possession of 4.5 ounces of cocaine. Upon his release, he helped to found New York Mothers of the Disappeared, which holds weekly vigils in New York City's Rockefeller Center to expose the human cost of the "war on drugs."

Anthony spoke to Socialist Worker about his case and the fight against New York's Rockefeller drug laws, which mandate a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years to life for selling two ounces or possessing four ounces of a narcotic substance.

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HOW DID you end up behind bars?

IN 1984, I had a family and was self-employed with a radio alarm installation business in the Bronx.

I was part of a bowling league, and this guy asks, "Why do you keep coming late?" I said, "Look, my car keeps breaking down, and I don't have the money to fix it." I was doing bad at the time--business was slow. He says, "Do you want to make some money?" and he introduced me to this dealer.

At first, I wasn't interested, but a couple months went by, it was wintertime, so like a carrot dangling on the string, the guy approached me again. He said bring this envelope from the Bronx up to Westchester County, and you'll make $500.

I brought the envelope to Westchester and walked into a police sting operation--20 undercover narcotics officers came out of nowhere, and I was arrested.

I was thrown into the very violent world of prison. Even though I had no criminal record, I was sent to Sing Sing, which is a maximum security prison. I lost my family. I was married and had a child, and three months later, my wife left.

While I was in prison, I acquired three college degrees and learned how to paint. Seven years later, my self-portrait wound up at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and at that point, I got a lot of exposure to my case. Two years later, in 1997, I was granted clemency by Gov. George Pataki. I basically painted my way out of prison.

My greatest asset in prison was my discovery of my political awareness about where I sat in society. When the Rockefeller laws were passed in 1973, the legislative intent was to curb the drug epidemic and capture drug kingpins.

Going into the 30th year, the prisons are bursting at the seams--from a population of 12,500 in 1973 to about 69,000 today. About 20,000 are there for drug crimes. And of those, 94 percent are Black and Latino.

So these are racist laws. The laws weren't created with a racial tone, but the Rockefeller laws have become a racial entity that has grown and entrapped in its web thousands of low-level nonviolent offenders who are Black and Latino.

HOW DO you feel about the way that the criminal justice system deals with corporate crime?

I THINK it's outrageous. It makes me wonder: "What does justice mean?" Corporate pirates out there wipe out people's life savings and their pensions, and they get slapped on the wrist. I look at the papers and think about it, and I get angry. It makes me think about how the system is run.

One of my paintings is called "Godly Arbitration." It's about the death penalty. You see a quote from Plato on the tombstone. And it says, "Justice is the advantage of the stronger." That's what I think it's about--that defines it.

More information about Anthony Papa and his art is available on the Web at 15yearstolife.com.

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