Sixteen Years for a Snickers Bar
month, a Texas jury recommended that Kenneth Payne, 29, spend 16 years in jail.
crime? Stealing a Snickers bar from a Tyler, Texas grocery store on December 17,
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."
king size Snickers bar it was. Retail price: $1.
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.
the guy was a petty thief -- he stole cookies and candy bars.
Kenneth Payne's plight to those of a group of white-collar and corporate
criminals who also were sentenced this month.
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).
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
are not unusually light sentences for white-collar criminals. In fact, it is
unusual to see a white-collar criminal do time.
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?
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.
double standard permeates every aspect of our criminal justice system.
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
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.
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,"
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.
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.)
was Clegg's unwavering absolutism.
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."
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
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.
line: big corporations and white-collar criminals are getting away with it,
while the political and media elites pull the wool over our eyes.
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)