We’re soft on crime — corporate crime, that is

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Let me sum up our justice system for you:

When offenders are mostly poor, we double down on deterrents that work questionably, if at all. When offenders are rich, we shy away from deterrents that might protect the common good.

And, no, this is not yet another commentary about Ferguson.

This one starts with news about a drug company named Insys Therapeutics. As the New York Times reports, the company lavishly rewards doctors for prescribing its main product and talking it up at conferences. The product is an oral spray of fentanyl, a powerful painkiller that is a key culprit in the rapid rise of opioid addictions and deaths.

The spray’s on-label use is narrow: for cancer patients already on strong painkillers. But the doctors whom Insys is paying 30 or 40 grand a year to promote the drug include several suspected of running pill mills.

The feds are looking into the company’s practices. But here’s the key point: Compared to the profits drug companies can make by turning physicians into shills, the potential fines are like a mosquito bite on an elephant.

Companies treat them as another cost of doing business, not an existential threat.

We see a similar syndrome on Wall Street, where not a single executive has faced criminal charges for blithely ignoring the risks that helped devastate the global economy.

Meanwhile, evidence piles up that the death penalty is administered ineptly and with racial bias, with scant correlation to lower murder rates. Yet people cling to the notion that executing prisoners is a vital deterrent.

Similarly, the inane, biased War on Drugs continues, despite the vivid cost in ruined lives, wasted tax dollars and eroded trust in the law.

Corporate apologists always claim it’s counterproductive to go hard after businesses whose illegal deeds despoil our environment or promote social ills. It’ll cost jobs, they say. It’ll stifle investment or innovation.

Nonsense. Here’s one of the many ways corporations aren’t really people: They’re much more likely to act out of rational self-interest. If you use strong rules, heavy fines and the occasional prosecution to price corporate bad behavior properly, that will deter it.

What’s more, these steps would reward law-abiding businesses, by at last giving them a level-playing field.  The net effect on jobs and innovation will be at worst neutral and possibly positive

Why don’t we see more tough deterrents on bad business behavior? Look no further than campaign finance records, where you can see how buying up lawmakers has become just another cost of doing business.

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