SINCE the financial crisis, complaints that corporate wrongdoers suffer light penalties have become routine. One reason is the Department of Justice’s longstanding policy that prosecutors must consider the “collateral consequences” that pursuing a corporation might have on innocent employees, shareholders, pensioners and even the financial system at large.
Amid public outrage, Congress has hauled in prosecutors to ask precisely how often collateral consequences have led them to give the banks a pass. Last spring, when four of the country’s biggest banks pleaded guilty to felonies, raising the issue again, I had a different question. As a reporter covering the criminal justice system’s impact on both the accused and their families, I wondered why we don’t give more consideration to collateral consequences when prosecuting individuals.
We think of punishment as calibrated to the offense, measured out in fines levied and time served. But collateral damage begins for many defendants and their families at the time of arrest, not conviction, and continues long afterward. And it does not spare those with minor charges, including many that do not result in conviction.