End the Banksters’ Get Out of Jail Free Card

If you want a lifetime guaranteed get out of jail free card, all you need to do is break the law while working for a giant transnational corporation.

Case in point: the Justice Department’s latest “crackdown” on the big banks. Today, the DOJ announced that it was fining a group of the world’s five biggest banks a total $5.7 billion after they all plead guilty to a series of rate-fixing scandals. JPMorgan Chase will have to pay $550 million, while Citigroup will have to pay $925 million.

Barclays, meanwhile, will pay $650 million, RBS will fork over $395 million, and UBS will pay around $545 million. The Federal Reserve is also fining these banks an additional $1.6 billion.

Speaking in Washington, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that the fines show that the Justice Department intends to "vigorously fight" those "who tilt the economic scales in their favor." Those are strong words, but ultimately they’re just that -- words.

While $550 million sounds like a lot of money to someone like your or me, for a massive bank like JPMorgan Chase that rakes in as much as $22 billion a year in profits, it’s chump change. It’s just the cost of doing business. And that’s precisely the problem.

At one point and time in this country corporations that committed a crime that harmed the public had to pay a big price for their actions. We actually used to have something called the “corporate death penalty.” If a corporation did something blatantly against the public interest, like gambling away people’s life savings or polluting local water supplies, the government would revoke its charter - the thing that gave it a right to exist as a private, for-profit business.

Banks were shut down in Ohio, Massachusetts, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania for behaving in ways that were “financially sound.” Oil corporations, match manufacturers, whiskey trusts, and sugar corporations were given the axe in Michigan, Ohio, Nebraska and New York. By the 1870s, nineteen states had amended their state constitutions to give lawmakers the power to “execute” corporations that violate the public’s safety and trust.

The longstanding practice of giving businesses the corporate death penalty only really stopped when President Warren G. Harding was elected president in 1921 with the promise of putting “less government in business and more business in government.” In other words, "deregulate and privatize."

If the government were really serious about cracking down on financial crime, it would consider bringing back the corporate death penalty for big banks that consistently break the law. But, in all likelihood, it won’t.

And that’s because our entire value system has changed - mostly since the Reagan Revolution - so that if you commit a crime as an employee of a corporation in a way that benefits that corporation, you won't even be investigated, much less prosecuted. Yet it was actual human people in the five big banks that the Justice Department fined today who made the conscious decisions to break the law -- the banks admitted as much by making a guilty plea.

And yet, nobody, I repeat nobody, is going to jail for what everyone, including the Attorney General -- the top law enforcement officer in the country -- acknowledges is a huge crime. The irony, of course, is that if this were the other way around and a bank employee was found embezzling millions of dollars from his employer, he would go to prison, no questions asked.

And if you or me tried stealing from a bank or any other corporation, be it embezzlement or even simple shoplifting? Forget about it. We’d spend years in jail.

In other words, if you commit a crime that HELPS corporations, nothing will happen to you. But if you commit a crime that HURTS a corporation, there'll be hell to pay. Just look at what happened to tech activist Aaron Swartz before he so sadly took his own life.

All Swartz did was download a few articles off a private internet database - an action that could have hurt a corporation - and the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts slapped him with charges that could have resulted in 35 years in prison!

This is a culture-wide problem. It’s why Lindsey Lohan, for example, goes to jail for stealing a necklace while Jamie Dimon gets to stay in charge of the biggest bank in the country even though he oversaw a multi-billion dollar theft from millions of average Americans.

Americans are starting to figure out that we now have separate and different rules for criminal behavior that helps versus crimes that hurt corporations, and that’s just wrong. For our democracy to function, our criminal justice system must punish all people who break the law in serious ways, instead of imprisoning shoplifters and pot smokers, while letting criminals in banks get off scott free.

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