Every year, the Natural Resources Law Institute (NRLI) at Lewis & Clark Law School honors a leading environmental law professor as a Distinguished Visitor. This year, NRLI selected Professor Rena Steinzor as the 28th Distinguished Visitor, citing Professor Steinzor's prolific work as a professor, author and founder and past president of the Center for Progressive Reform. As the Distinguished Visitor, Prof. Steinzor spent three days at Lewis & Clark Law School attending classes and meeting with students and professors. She also delivered the lecture, "How White-Collar Criminal Enforcement Can Save the Environment." Her summary of it appears below.
Recent events have exposed a double standard in our criminal justice system. On the one hand, the criminal justice system has incarcerated millions of people, disproportionately African American, for petty crimes, thereby ruining their and their families' lives. On the other hand, it has largely ignored white-collar crime that adversely affects millions of people, their livelihoods and all too often ends in death; yet, no individual is punished for these corporate crimes. Put simply, there is little to deter corporate decision-makers from cutting corners on safety or cheating legal obligations to increase profits because no individual will be held accountable.
It is within the broad context of our criminal justice system as just described, that we must look at current challenges to enforcement of environmental laws. These challenges include substantial budget cuts at the federal and state levels, an ossified regulatory system that no longer functions properly (if at all), and extreme hostility among conservatives in Congress that saps dwindling EPA resources through endless testimony, review and re-review of EPA actions.
Inadequate enforcement of environmental laws has led to such events as the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 workers and caused billions in environmental damage; and the emerging Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal resulting in auto emissions 10 to 40 times higher than the legal limit contributing to serious air quality and public health problems.
To address these concerns—and prevent future disasters—I recommend criminal prosecution of corporate decision-makers whose illegal risk-taking behavior harms many and increases the risk of harm to many more. Such prosecution would be an effective deterrent to future reckless corporate conduct, change the risk calculation for corporate executives, and improve our justice system by addressing the injustice of the current double standard: applying the harshest punishment to the vulnerable, but letting the privileged escape accountability.
By Rena Steinzor, Professor of Law