Incapacitating Criminal Corporations

59 Pages Posted: 24 Sep 2018

See all articles by William Robert Thomas

William Robert Thomas

Harvard Law School; University of Michigan Law School; University of Michigan Philosophy Department

Date Written: September 3, 2018

Abstract

If there is any consensus in the fractious debates over corporate punishment, it is this: a corporation cannot be imprisoned, incarcerated, jailed, or otherwise locked up. Whatever fiction the criminal law entertains about corporate personhood, having an actual “body to kick” — and, by extension, a body to throw into prison — is not one of them. The ambition of this project is not to reject this obvious point, but rather to challenge the less-obvious claim it has come to represent: incapacitation, despite long being a textbook justification for punishing individuals, does not bear on the criminal law of corporations.

In this Article, I argue that incapacitation both can and should serve as a justification for punishing criminal corporations. Descriptively, I interrogate how rote appeals to the impossibility of corporate imprisonment obscure more pressing, challenging questions about whether and to what extent the criminal law can vindicate an account of incapacitation that extends to corporate persons. Excavating a richer conceptual framework for incapacitation from our practices of individual punishment, I demonstrate that sanctions we already impose in or just outside the criminal law can be better understood as efforts to incapacitate, rather than to deter or rehabilitate, a criminal corporation. Indeed, reevaluating our understanding of penal incapacitation provides reason to think that we have similar and perhaps stronger reasons for incapacitating corporate persons than we do individuals.

Prescriptively, I leverage this comparative framework to argue that incapacitation should be recognized as a core justification for corporate punishment. Although rehabilitation has gained traction in past decades as a basis for punishing corporations, incapacitation stands as a more realistic, more administrable, alternative. This is because a principle of rehabilitation has led to a practice of imposing on corporations intricately designed, but dubiously effective, compliance and internal governance reforms. Incapacitation, by contrast, lends itself to clear, discrete prohibitions for which the criminal law is better situated to justify, impose, and monitor.

Keywords: criminal law, corporate law, white-collar crime, theories of punishment

JEL Classification: K14, M14

Suggested Citation

Thomas, William Robert, Incapacitating Criminal Corporations (September 3, 2018). Vanderbilt Law Review, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3243455

William Robert Thomas (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

Cambridge, MA
United States

University of Michigan Law School ( email )

625 South State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1215
United States

University of Michigan Philosophy Department

701 Tappan Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48709-1220
United States

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