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Sixteen Years for a Snickers Bar


Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

Last

month, a Texas jury recommended that Kenneth Payne, 29, spend 16 years in jail.

Payne’s

crime? Stealing a Snickers bar from a Tyler, Texas grocery store on December 17,

1999.

When

Smith county Assistant District Attorney Jodi Brown was asked by the Associated

Press how she could justify 16 years for the theft of a Snickers bar, Brown

replied "It was a king size."

A

king size Snickers bar it was. Retail price: $1.

In

Texas, if you steal property worth less than $500, it’s a misdemeanor punishable

by a fine of $500 with no jail time. The case was brought as a felony because

Payne was a habitual offender. He had ten previous convictions — including one

for stealing a bag of Oreo cookies — and had spent seven years in Texas

prisons. When he shoved the king sized Snickers bar down his pants he was on

parole for felony theft.

Still,

the guy was a petty thief — he stole cookies and candy bars.

Compare

Kenneth Payne’s plight to those of a group of white-collar and corporate

criminals who also were sentenced this month.

Hoffman-LaRoche

Ltd. and four top executives pled guilty for their roles in an international

conspiracy to suppress and eliminate competition in the vitamin industry — what

the Justice Department calls perhaps the largest criminal antitrust conspiracy

in history. The prison terms: four months, three and one-half months, three

months and three months. (The four executives were also fined anywhere from

$75,000 to $350,000).

Also

in April, three cruise line employees were sentenced for their role in dumping

pollution into the Alaskan Inland Passage from a Holland America cruise ship.

The three employees were each sentenced to two years unsupervised probation and

fined $10,000.

These

are not unusually light sentences for white-collar criminals. In fact, it is

unusual to see a white-collar criminal do time.

So,

how can it be that Kenneth Payne is doing 16 years for stealing a one dollar

Snickers bar while the former executives of some of the world’s largest

corporations get off with a few months in prison — after being convicted of a

crime that cost consumers hundreds of millions of dollars?

It’s

like Richard Pryor said — in our country — justice means "just us"

– regular folks — and not them — the people who call the shots — who end up

in the slammer.

This

double standard permeates every aspect of our criminal justice system.

The

other day, for example, we were listening to National Public Radio, and up

popped a debate about whether felons should be allowed to participate in a

democracy.

On

one side of the debate was Mark Mauer of the Sentencing Project. Mauer pointed

out that in 46 states, you can’t vote if you are in prison. In 16 states, if you

were convicted of a felony — even if you get out of prison — you are

disenfranchised for life. Mauer estimated that 13 percent of adult black men

cannot vote as a result of a felony conviction right now.

On

the NPR show, Roger Clegg, an attorney with the right-leaning and the slightly

misnamed Center for Equal Opportunity (Linda Chavez’ think tank), made the

argument that felons shouldn’t be allowed to vote. "If you aren’t willing

to play by the rules, then you shouldn’t have a say in making the rules,"

Clegg said.

"And

people who have been convicted of felonies, which are by definition serious

crimes, shouldn’t be given a role in deciding how the government should be

run," Clegg said.

After

hearing this, we called up Clegg to ask what he thought about banning corporate

criminals — like BASF and Hoffman LaRoche, who had engaged in perhaps the most

egregious criminal antitrust conspiracy in history — from "deciding how

the government should be run." (Corporations of course don’t vote, but they

do give money to elect candidates, they lobby legislators and law enforcement

officials, and they mold public opinion through their public relations efforts.)

Gone

was Clegg’s unwavering absolutism.

After

much humming and hawing, Clegg admitted that "it makes sense to limit the

political role of corporations when they have shown that they are not worthy of

trust." But he quickly added that "because individuals and

corporations are fundamentally different, you can’t just apply the rules

equally." Clegg questioned whether the First Amendment would allow

prosecutors to strip corporations of their "rights" to influence how

the government should be run. Clegg, of course, raised no such question when it

came to stripping individual felons of such "rights."

What

about the death penalty? In a new book, Actual Innocence: Five Days to Execution

and Other Dispatches from the Wrongly Convicted (Doubleday, 2000), Jim Dwyer,

Peter Neufeld, Barry Scheck, report that in the 24 years since the death penalty

was reinstated by the Supreme Court, about 620 individuals have been put to

death — but 87 condemned persons had their convictions vacated by exonerating

evidence.

Most

likely, innocent lives have been taken. All this while really big recidivist

corporate criminals like Exxon, Royal Caribbean, Rockwell International, Warner

Lambert, Teledyne, and United Technologies — criminals truly deserving of the

corporate death penalty, get away with slap on the wrist fines.

Bottom

line: big corporations and white-collar criminals are getting away with it,

while the political and media elites pull the wool over our eyes.

Think

of that next time you pick up a Snickers bar.

Russell

Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime

Reporter. 

Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational

Monitor. 

Mokhiber and Weissman are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for

MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press,

1999, http://www.corporatepredators.org)