Enron’s Skilling Sentenced

OK, so everyone knows by now that former Enron CEO, Jeff Skilling, was sentenced yesterday to just over 24 years in jail. As is often the way in high-profile court cases, debate began immediately over the suitability of the sentence. I saw one commentator on TV who basically said “come on, there are rapists and murderers who do less time than that!”

On the other hand, according to CNN

Some victims felt the sentence was too lenient. “If it had been me, I would have given him more time,” said Charles Prestwood, who lost $1.3 million when Enron collapsed. “I guess you can’t win them all.”

The judge in the case is reported to have said, in justifying the very long sentence handed out to Skilling, that…

“His crimes have imposed on hundreds if not thousands of people a life sentence of poverty

To make any sense of this issue of sentencing, Business Ethics needs to cede the floor to its philosophical cousin, Philosophy of Law. One of the most basic, and most important, issues in the Philosophy of Law (and in legal scholarship more generally) is the purpose of punishment. It’s important to know why you’re punishing someone, because the why is likely to affect the how. The reasons typically given for punishing criminals include:

  • To denounce the crime;
  • To deter the offender, and others, from further crime;
  • To incapacitate offenders, by separating them from society;
  • To rehabilitate;

(In fact these, and others, are among the principles of sentencing listed in the Criminal Code of Canada. But they’re certainly not unique to Canada.)

So, back to Skilling. In discussing the appropriateness of the 24-year sentence, we should be asking questions like these:

  • Is a 24-year sentence necessary, and sufficient, to denounce the crime, to repudiate the kind of behaviour in which Skilling engaged?
  • Is this sentence likely to deter other would-be corporate criminals? (My guess: no. When you’re the “smartest guy in the room,” you don’t expect to get caught.)
  • Will this sentence separate Skilling from society, such that he won’t be able to repeat his crime? (Or, more precisely, is this sentece required if we are to prevent Skilling from offending again?)
  • Is this sentence likely to rehabilitate Skilling, to show him the error of his ways, and to turn him into a productive member of society?

(If this stuff interests you, I recommend in strongest terms David Paciocco’s wonderful book, Getting Away With Murder: The Canadian Criminal Justice System. Though the book’s focus is on Canada, it really should be of interest to people living in any country that’s part of the Anglo-American legal tradition. Basically, it’s a book about legal technicalities, and why — though sometimes maddening — they’re often incredibly important. Anyway, I recommend it here because it has some really interesting stuff to say about sentencing, and because it’s actually a fun read.)

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