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Should We Throw More CEOs in Jail?

Ethan Stock
Creative Commons

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t worry whether our food and working conditions were safe, or whether government regulators were keeping track of these things for us -- but we don’t live in a perfect world.

In fact, there’s a sense that if you run a big company, and you’re responsible for something really bad happening, that you’ll probably skate away with a slap on the wrist while somebody else has to live with the damage done.

In 2008, an outbreak of salmonella poisoning in two manufacturing plants owned by the Peanut Corporation of America killed nine people in Minnesota. That same year, we suffered the worst recession since the Great Depression, caused by risky Wall Street behavior.

In 2010, a massive explosion killed 29 miners at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in the worst mining disaster in 40 years.

Each of these disasters was preventable, mostly the result of corporate negligence, but also lax government oversight. Edward Clair, former lawyer for the Mine Safety and Health Administration Agency said after the explosion that he doesn't think "the agency's failures caused the explosion," but he does "think that the agency's failures contributed to some of the severity of the explosion."

That's just the tip of the iceberg. Remember the Deepwater Horizon oil spill?

So, here’s a question: instead of fines and reparations, lengthy court battles and bad publicity, government started treating corporate bad behavior as a crime... a crime at least on the level of: Is it time to start throwing more CEOs who break the rules in jail? 

Would that change anything? Would we end up with a safer world, with less pollution and less toxic risk?

It’s a question that Rena Steinzor has been asking in her book Why Not Jail? Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction.

This hour, we talk about what needs to change to prevent future accidents.


  • Rena Steinzor is a professor at the University of Maryland Carey Law School and the President of the Center for Progressive Reform. She’s also the author of Why Not Jail: Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction
  • Robert Weissman is the President of Public Citizen and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Economist as well as on NPR.

Chion Wolf contributed to this show.

Betsy started as an intern at WNPR in 2011 after earning a Master's Degree in American and Museum Studies from Trinity College. She served as the Senior Producer for 'The Colin McEnroe Show' for several years before stepping down in 2021 and returning to her previous career as a registered nurse. She still produces shows with Colin and the team when her schedule allows.

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