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Crime and Unequal Punishment

Professor of Sociology Eileen Leonard and Zoe Van Buren '13. Copyright Vassar College/Buck Lewis.

Remember the Exxon-Valdez, the supertanker that spilled more than 20 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989? A federal jury ordered Exxon to pay $5 billion in damages to fishermen, landowners and others affected by the disaster. But according to Vassar sociology professor Eileen Leonard, an appellate court judge quietly reduced the award by more than 90 percent years after the incident had faded from the headlines.

The courts’ response to the Exxon-Valdez disaster is one of many such examples Leonard found during five years of research on inequalities in the justice system. Her conclusion: While millions of Americans—many of them poor and black—are locked up in prisons and jails for drug possession and other street crimes, big corporations and their executives who break the law go largely unpunished.

Leonard and Zoe Van Buren ’13, one of 21 Ford Scholars working on research projects in the humanities and social sciences on campus this summer, are putting the finishing touches on a book on the subject that Leonard hopes to publish next year.

Van Buren says she always suspected rich criminals fared better than poor ones. But she didn’t comprehend the scope of the issue until she collaborated with Leonard on her research.

“I knew there was inequality based on race, class, and gender, but the severity of the problem didn’t really hit me until I started working with Eileen,” Van Buren says.

Leonard says some of these inequalities had been cited in previous studies on white-collar crime, but she was surprised to learn no one had ever done a comprehensive comparison of the punishment that is imposed—or not imposed—for such crimes compared to the jail and prison time served by street criminals.

Her book is peppered with examples. The reason for the disparity? “It’s simple: power,” Leonard says. “These big corporations have more resources than the government—they can keep fighting their case. Look at the crimes that were committed that led to the crash in 2008. The only people who have really been punished are the people involved in Occupy Wall Street. There’s irony for you.”

Leonard says Van Buren’s help in finishing the book had been “invaluable.” She’s been giving each chapter a fresh read and suggesting how the points that are made can be enhanced or clarified. “Zoe will often come to me and say, ‘This isn’t persuasive enough; you need more data or examples,’” Leonard says.

Van Buren had some knowledge of criminal justice issues before she began collaborating with Leonard on the book. She took a course in criminology from Leonard in her sophomore year and participated in a Vassar-sponsored program with inmates at Green Haven Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison about 15 miles from the campus. And while some may think it’s unusual for her to be editing her teacher, Van Buren says she didn’t feel uncomfortable because it’s part of Vassar’s culture for students to challenge the faculty. “That’s how learning happens—when you have the freedom to question anything your teacher says,” she says.

Van Buren says the experience had also enabled her to understand what’s involved in scholarly research. “It been very helpful to learn the nuts and bolts of the process,” she says. “It’s much easier now for me to see myself writing a book someday. It’s made the concept more concrete.”

Leonard says she hopes the book will help generate more dialog about changes she believes are needed in the criminal justice system. “People have asked me if my research has made me more cynical,” she says, “but I hope that as people come to know what’s happening, they’ll become more empowered to take back the government from the corporations.”

–Larry Hertz