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Skilling’s martyrdom: The case for criminalization without incarceration

journal contribution
posted on 2010-01-01, 00:00 authored by Sandeep Gopalan
This paper restricts itself to crimes involving corporate fiduciaries taking bad decisions at the expense of shareholders (corporate governance offenses). The arguments do not apply to fraud as moral wrongfulness exists in that case. To the extent that the actions covered by this paper are blameworthy, I argue that this determination must be disentangled from punishment. Disentanglement of blame from deserts suggests a via-media between criminalization and decriminalization - criminalization without incarceration. Accordingly, the legal process stops at the determination of guilt. The paper advances the criminalization debate because it does not get bogged down in the irreconcilable quarrel about whether corporate governance misbehavior ought to be criminalized for deterrence, retribution, or rehabilitation reasons, and whether it achieves any of these purposes. For these offenses, I argue that whichever theoretical justification underpins the decision to criminalize, imprisonment must not follow conviction. The conviction, despite the lack of incarceration, and the consequential sanctions likely to be imposed on the wrongdoer are sufficient to satisfy the three main justifications for criminalization. In appropriate cases, disgorgement of the offender’s gains will aid in the achievement of these objectives.

The model proposed by this paper would yield significant savings by reducing prison costs. It would also allow the state to take advantage of the disproportionate cost/burden of conviction on corporate governance offenders. Owing to the offenders’ high earning potential, deterrence can be achieved at lower cost by conviction alone because the cost of incarceration does not have to be borne by the state whereas the destruction of capacity to generate similar (or indeed, any) income has to be suffered by the offender even without going to jail. If the cost of incarceration is the same for offenders with different earning capacities, imprisoning those with very high earning capacities is a waste of social capital if the objectives sought to be achieved by incarceration can be achieved through other means. Further, the cost of a conviction can be predicted with sufficient certainty in the case of white-collar criminals by looking at their earnings history, and in many cases this can be a significant sum. Unlike the common criminal who may not have a similarly predictable earning capacity and therefore suffer the same extent of monetary loss from a conviction, this loss ought to serve the deterrence function without the need for the state to spend money imprisoning the offender. In addition to loss of earning capacity, clawing back ill-gotten gains significantly adds to disutility.

The paper is set out as follows: Part II briefly outlines the scope of the wrongs tackled as stemming from the principal-agent relationship in corporate law, and the inability of the law to overcome effectively problems resulting from the collectivization of the principal in that relationship. In Part III, I argue that conviction without imprisonment is a second-best alternative to decriminalization in cases where the conduct is blameworthy, and results in non-consensual harm. Part IV demonstrates the disutility caused by conviction alone to show that the objectives of criminalization can be satisfied without the need for imprisonment. Part V asserts that consequential sanctions like shaming add to the disutility of conviction. Part VI ties the thesis to Skilling’s conviction for bad business judgment devoid of moral wrongfulness to illustrate the problems with conflating blame and punishment. Part VII concludes.



University of San Francisco law review








459 - 504


University of San Francisco, School of Law


San Francisco, Calif





Publication classification

C1.1 Refereed article in a scholarly journal; C Journal article

Copyright notice

2010, University of San Francisco, School of Law

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