So-called “deferred prosecutions” were developed in the 1930s as a way of helping juvenile offenders. A juvenile who had been charged with a crime would agree with the prosecutor to have his prosecution deferred while he entered a program designed to rehabilitate such offenders. If he successfully completed the program and committed no other crime over the course of a year, the charge would then be dropped.
The analogy of a Fortune 500 company to a juvenile delinquent is, perhaps, less than obvious. Nonetheless, beginning in the early 1990s and with increasing frequency thereafter, federal prosecutors began entering into “deferred prosecution” agreements with major corporations and large financial institutions. In the typical arrangement, the government agreed to defer prosecuting the company for various federal felonies if the company, in addition to paying a financial penalty, agreed to introduce various “prophylactic” measures designed to prevent future such crimes and to “rehabilitate” the company’s “culture.” The crimes for which prosecution was thus deferred included felony violations of the securities laws, banking laws, antitrust laws, anti-money-laundering laws, food and drug laws, foreign corrupt practices laws, and numerous provisions of the general federal criminal code.
The intellectual origins of this approach to corporate crime can be traced back at least to the 1980s, when various academics suggested that the best way to deter “crime in the suites” was to foster a culture within companies of acting ethically and responsibly. In practice, this meant encouraging companies not only to provide in-house ethical training but also to enlarge their internal compliance programs, so that responsible behavior would be praised and misconduct policed. The approach found favor not just with some corporations (notably General Electric under the guidance of its then general counsel, Ben Heineman), but also with the US Sentencing Commission, which, in promulgating the Corporate Sentencing Guidelines in 1991, made the overall adequacy of a company’s prior internal compliance programs the most important factor in reducing (by as much as 60 percent) the size of the fine to be imposed on a company found guilty of a federal criminal violation.
The Department of Justice then went a step further and, in a series of memoranda issued over the succeeding two decades, made the existence or absence of a meaningful internal compliance program an important consideration in determining whether or not to prosecute a company for crimes committed by its employees—the theory being that, if a company had a good compliance program already in place, its employees’ crimes were “aberrational” and not reflective of corporate irresponsibility, whereas the absence of a good compliance program indicated a lax corporate attitude toward crime.
But the department did not stop there. In…
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