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Sarbanes-Oxley's Purported Over-Criminalization of Corporate Offenders

Lisa H. Nicholson

University of Louisville - Louis D. Brandeis School of Law

Journal of Business & Technology Law, Vol. 2, p. 43, 2007

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 and its enhanced criminal penalties, which increase both the monetary fines and terms of imprisonment, were enacted at least in part to aid the SEC and to fill the perceived enforcement gap in combating corporate fraud. Congress, in so legislating, enlisted a criminal law behavioral model to induce law-abiding corporate behavior. In other words, Congress presumes that people will comply with the law after a conscious evaluation of the risks associated with disobeying the law. Deterrent-based punishments, however, may yield less effective outcomes for corporate fraudsters since some actors do not engage in the requisite cost-benefit assessments before acting. Moreover, even if everyone undertook such an assessment, their subjective beliefs will vary the outcomes. Indeed, a corporate offender's attitude toward risk will differ according to the type of criminal penalties that could be imposed, thereby implicating differing levels of marginal disutility.

This Article analyzes whether this tactic - that of enacting increasingly lengthier prison sentences and imposing higher fines alone - will have the desired effect of deterring potential offenders, and punishing wrongdoers. As will be demonstrated below, reliance on the Act's enhanced criminal penalties to deter wrongdoing may not yield the desired result in light of the many uncontrollable factors that may undermine both the imposition of lengthy sentences and higher fines, and the impact of such penalties on convicted wrongdoers. Consequently, the punishment prong of the costs-benefits analysis must fully extinguish all benefits of the unlawful act in order to fill in the gaps that arise from a sole reliance on deterrent-based punishment. The asset forfeiture sanction effectively removes the economic motive for the criminal conduct from the potential offender's 'benefits' calculation. Any purported benefit from the criminal scheme will be wiped out if the offender is caught. This sanction which removes the economic incentive for the fraudulent scheme also punishes those individuals who either engage in a faulty cost-benefit analysis, or who fail to engage in such an analysis altogether.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 16

Keywords: sarbanes-oxley, white-collar crime, criminal procedure, federal criminal law, asset forfeiture, corporate culture, business ethics, criminal penalities, securities fraud

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Date posted: November 9, 2007  

Suggested Citation

Nicholson, Lisa H., Sarbanes-Oxley's Purported Over-Criminalization of Corporate Offenders. Journal of Business & Technology Law, Vol. 2, p. 43, 2007. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1027714

Contact Information

Lisa H. Nicholson (Contact Author)
University of Louisville - Louis D. Brandeis School of Law ( email )
Wilson W. Wyatt Hall
Louisville, KY 40292
United States
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