In 2010, an explosion ripped through a coal mine owned by Massey Energy, killing 29 men. Last week, the CEO of that company, Don Blankenship, was found guilty of violating federal safety standards. He was sentenced to one year in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The lightness of the punishment set off outrage from the family members of the dead. Tommy Davis, a worker at Massey Energy who lost his brother, his nephew, and his son in the blast, gave full vent to his anger: "All [Blankenship] had to do was make one of those 40 phone calls a day he made checking on production to say 'shut it down and fix everything,' but he refused to do it," a visibly shaking Davis told the cameras. "All he gets is a year?"
"There need to be stricter, more harsh penalties for people who put greed and money over human life."
Change a few words, and Davis could easily have been expressing the disbelief of millions of Americans that, after a massive economic collapse brought on by Wall Street bloat and corruption, in which millions lost their livelihoods, all of one prominent Wall Street financier went to jail.
This is what happens when America's highly unequal brand of capitalism collides with the justice system.
Blankenship was known for a hard-charging style that placed money making ahead of following the rules. But precisely because the decisions that led to the mine disaster were the product of a whole system of human beings, it was equally difficult for prosecutors to make any heftier charge stick to the former CEO. Blankenship sat at the top of Massey Energy, so he got a multimillion-dollar golden parachute upon leaving the company. But when Massey Energy got 29 people killed, Blankenship could also plausibly claim to be just one more cog in the machine.
Similar reasons were given for the U.S. government's failure to prosecute Wall Street wrongdoing: What happened was collective negligence and stupidity, not outright individual criminality. Financial engineering is just incredibly complex, and sometimes things go bad without anyone being malicious.
In the case of the Great Recession, however, this narrative has become harder to defend. In the years since, several major players like Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase have collectively paid (woefully inadequate) fines for various shenanigans. These decisions involved signed statements of fact that reveal individuals within the companies knew what was going on: Financiers were well-aware the mortgages in the securities they were selling were bad, and that they were running roughshod over proper guidelines for underwriting. All of which goes beyond the negligent into the criminal.
But being in the capitalist aristocracy afforded a different kind of protection: The Department of Justice concluded they couldn't risk prosecuting individual financial leaders for fear of destabilizing the financial markets and thus the entire economy.
It seems hard to escape the conclusion that people on Wall Street weren't prosecuted largely because they were part of the same communities as major government agency heads: friends of friends and colleagues of colleagues, all part of the same relatively small social circles that exist at the top of the income ladder. To understand is to forgive, and the elite and the upper class understand their own.
In a vacuum, you could perhaps defend these sentences, on the simple grounds that mercy is always preferable to punishment for the sake of punishment. The trouble is that mercy is not equitably distributed. Our lawmakers have happily ratcheted up mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines to impose colossal sentences on people they will never share a church pew or cocktail bar or dinner table with. Our justice system has no hesitation about using its power to dismantle the lives of people who run in the far different — and far larger — social circles at the bottom of the economic hierarchy.
Last week, prosecutors in Louisiana chose to use the state's extraordinarily sweeping habitual offender laws to threaten a man with 20 years to life in prison for stealing $31 worth of candy bars. In 2015, a young African-American man spent four months in a cell for stealing $5 worth of groceries, and was then discovered dead in his cell. A 2013 study by the American Civil Liberties Union documented over 3,200 cases of people sentenced to life in prison for petty nonviolent crimes like drug possession or shoplifting. Despite its hesitance toward prosecuting the privileged, America has nonetheless managed to rack up the biggest prison population in the world — both in absolute and percentage terms.
Surely this secret knowledge lies unspoken somewhere under the anger of Tommy Davis, and under the anger of every American who watched uncomprehending as criminal charges were never pressed for what went down in 2008; the knowledge that should they, or one of their friends or family, be guilty of causing such destruction and suffering, they would never be shown such magnanimous clemency.
If capitalism's systemic complexity acts as a shield for the Don Blankenships of the world, it has the opposite effect for the American poor. Because they can't be laid at the feet of any one person, we don't see the policy failures of government that strip impoverished communities of jobs; or the business malfeasance and collective community failures that dump poison into their water, lead into their homes, and deny them good nutrition. We only see the aftermath of all that decimation, when that one concrete individual robs the liquor store.
In the meantime, Don Blankenship's lawyers intend to appeal his one-year sentence.