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Public Administration and Institutions That Commit Child Abuse or Neglect: Part 2 – If Corporations Are “People” Can We Deter Them From Evil?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
May 26, 2023

This column is the second in a series on a painful and disturbing topic: child abuse and neglect. The focus is on the unfolding crisis for U.S. public administration systems dealing with institutions that have become systematic sources of child abuse and neglect (you can read the first column here). This column addresses a broader issue: Why it is that corporations—which are considered “people” in the eyes of civil law—are not considered directly eligible for criminal penalties. This double standard has meant that various means available to the public sector for deterring bad behavior have been blocked from application in situations where they might have the greatest positive effects.

Let me give you three very direct examples of how the application of the death penalty to corporations may have deterred future bad choices by corporations. Example one is the decision by the NCAA to give the death penalty to the Southern Methodist University football team several decades ago. While not permanent in that case, it meant that there simply would be no football team at that university as punishment for its violations of the rules for recruiting athletes. Lest you think that was a victimless crime, consider that any quick search on the Internet will produce instance after instance of Division I college recruits in football and men’s basketball being offered prostitutes as part of their campus visits. Keep in mind that most of these college recruits were barely 18 years old at the time and a few might have been under 18. Keep in mind that the prostitutes may have been subject to sex trafficking and other abuses that started when they were minors. And think about a university keeping a list of available prostitutes ready to service the recruits.

The second example is the dismantling of the Enron Corporation just after the turn of the century. I do not have the space to go into the fine details, but suffice it to say that Enron was ended permanently—a true death penalty—as a consequence of corporate fraud and related crimes. My third example is how poorly managed banks get taken over by the Federal Government and dismantled overnight—again, receiving the corporate version of the death penalty.

These examples do suggest that it not only is possible to subject a corporate entity to the equivalent of the death penalty but subsequently other corporations take notice and change their behaviors. To cut to the chase, what I am claiming is that deterrence works in the corporate realm especially when it is combined with harsh criminal penalties including significant jail time for the key corporate executives. This is noteworthy in the context of all the evidence that shows there is little to no deterrence effect on violent crimes from the imposition of harsh sentences such as life in prison or the death penalty. Corporate crimes always involve collective decision making that offers numerous opportunities for assessing the likelihood of direct consequences from criminal choices. Individual violent crimes often occur in the spur of the moment when emotions overcome any semblance of individual rationality.

What I suggest is that public administration needs to push for harsh criminal penalties for corporate malfeasance and make examples of such malfeasance to amplify the deterrence effect. This applies not only to financial crimes but also to environmental crimes and to the subject of this series, institutional abuse and neglect of children.

The first column in this series identified four prominent corporate institutions in the United States for which there is highly documented evidence of the institutional abuse and neglect of children. Certainly, the direct agents of that abuse were human beings. But the institutions in which they were located either systematically encouraged their behavior or shielded them from accusations related to their conduct with children. As I noted before, these four institutions combined have produced many thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of victims whose subsequent lives were impacted permanently and negatively by their experiences.

I am not going to “beat around the bush” here. As a citizen, as a parent, as a public administration scholar, I want to see these institutions punished as criminals to the full extent possible. I am not satisfied with the default approach of pursuing individual lawsuits by victims seeking financial compensation for their suffering. That has proven insufficient to deter future bad behavior.

One of the four institutions on my list is the Boy Scouts of America. I understand there are millions living in the United States who cherish their Boy Scouts experience. But, again, the evidence suggests that there was corporate malfeasance within the Boy Scouts related to covering up child abuse and neglect. Am I arguing that the Boy Scouts of America as a criminal defendant might deserve the death penalty—meaning that the U.S. Government would move to terminate that corporation, distribute its assets for the benefit of victims and otherwise ensure the end of the institution? Yes, yes I am.

If you don’t agree, please track down some of the many victims and explain why to their faces not mine.

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and is an executive-in-residence at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (available for free here). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux.

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