Friday, October 14, 2011
By lowering the standards necessary to convict individuals of federal crimes, legislators have doubled the number of people slammed with criminal sentences. According to a Wall Street Journal article, the number of people sentenced has grown from 40,000 1996 to more than 80,000 in 2010. In many cases, prosecutors do not have to prove that an individual had any intent to break a criminal law in order to convict. It is one reason business people must be especially vigilant about protecting their liberty.
I am a former stockbroker who served 18 months in the federal prison camp at Taft, California. While climbing through my sentence I met and interacted with scores of individuals who insisted that they did not have any intent on breaking criminal laws. Their intentions, however, did not shield them from hundreds of thousands in legal expenditures; nor did ignorance of the law excuse them from lengthy prison terms.
In my books Lessons From Prison and Ethics in Motion, I’ve done my best to bring attention to the ease with which criminal laws could ensnare people who considered themselves law-abiding citizens. Sometimes people crossed the line when they made decisions that they convinced themselves only amounted “to pushing he envelope,” but did not merit a prison term.
Failure to disclose “all” assets on bankruptcy petitions, for example, could cause real problems. I’ve met and interacted with individuals who once shrugged off the oversight, claiming that they hadn’t considered disclosing the value of tools, or jewelry, or furniture. By failing to disclose the value of such items on bankruptcy petitions, however, the individuals subjected themselves and their spouses to criminal prosecution followed by imprisonment.
During these troubling economic times, millions of Americans seek protection from creditors under federal bankruptcy laws. Yet individuals who affix their signatures on any federal form would be well advised to understand how easily those signatures can expose them to the inside of a prison cell. That fine print on the bottom of each page discussing Title 18, United States Code, Title 1001, is not boilerplate language. It carries the force of law, as many people in prison have come to learn.
Our federal criminal justice system has grown into an unwildly beast. Many build careers around growing it further. Congress passed the first federal criminal laws back in 1790. That criminal code only included 20 federal crimes. Since most crimes were self-explanatory, like murder, robbery, and treason, the cliché “ignorance of the law is no excuse” made sense.
Authorities estimate that federal statutes now list more than 4,500 crimes. They embed thousands more in federal regulations.
Tacitus, a first-century Roman senator said, “the more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.” To prove this claim I direct you to new legislation out of Washington. Prosecutors don’t even have to prove that an individual intended to break the law, as they could argue for individuals who signed forms they knew to be false. With legislation that has allowed our prison system to swell, confining 2.3 million people, prosecutors now only must prove that an individual broke a law, regardless of whether the individual knew anything about the law’s existence.
Business people are especially vulnerable to such changes. They may face criminal prosecution for accepting funds that originated from a criminal enterprise.
Their knowledge of the funds’ origins may not have any bearing on their exposure to prosecution. In other words, if a web designer accepts payment from an individual who engaged in crime, the web designer subjects himself to criminal prosecution and imprisonment.
Whether small business or large business, executives should pay attention to their conduct. Too many individuals now serve time in prison for actions that they did not know were criminal, that did not create victims, and that may not have even enriched himself or herself. What land of the free? Try land of the felon…