Consider a hypothetical: I decide to go on a string of bank robberies, and after many successful efforts, one poorly planned escape gets me arrested. Luckily, the US Department of Justice intervenes and offers me a sweet deal: As long as I admit that I have committed a wrongdoing, and pay a fine which a judge deems acceptably punitive (which I will then pay from my run of successful bank robberies!), I will be released without any criminal indictments. Sounds like a merciful agreement, right?
Unfortunately, many such agreements have occurred, and continue to occur, between large US corporations and the federal prosecutors charged with holding those who break the law accountable. These agreements take the form of non-prosecution and deferred-prosecution agreements. NPAs and DPAs, as they are often referred to, involve getting companies to agree to an admittance of wrongdoing and an acceptance of further penalties, such as fines and increased oversight, which allows them to avoid criminal conviction.
The use of NPAs and DPAs has increased greatly in the past decade. According to a report published by Gibson Dunn, a global law firm, of the 273 publicly disclosed agreements the Department of Justice (DOJ) entered into since 2000, 252 of them have been since 2005.
In 2013, there were 27 agreements resulting in $2.9 billion of fines. For many of these firms, however, the fines levied upon them may not be significant enough to dissuade them from future negligent behavior.
NPAs and DPAs are not inherently bad. In fact, they create a way for the prosecution and defendant to reach an agreement efficiently, avoiding months’ or years’ worth of legal fees and paperwork. With the rise of these agreements, however, the possibility that corporations will receive a punishment commensurate with their crime decreases in likelihood.
Students at the University of Virginia School of Law have determined that the potential for abuse contained in these agreements requires greater public scrutiny. Thus, they filed a Freedom of Information Act in an attempt to get the DOJ to publicly disclose information regarding 30 settlements that are currently not available for public review.
This number, although small in proportion to the total number of public agreements, reduces the transparency of the legal system and leaves in place the potential for abusive practices by prosecutors and defendants alike.
In order to prevent abuses from taking place within the formation of these agreements, the Department of Justice should be required to disclose all of the records from non- and deferred-prosecution agreements, as well as provide a rationale as to why criminal indictments were not issued against the companies investigated.
It is the job of the DOJ to hold the powerful accountable. It is thus the job of the people to hold the DOJ to those same standards.
Paul Ryan is a junior majoring in economics and finance.