Competing Definitions and Unequal Consequences

As an initial matter, the core problem confronting the criminal justice system is its inability to create uniform and equally applicable definitions of crime. This problem is the consequence of the fact that crime is the product of several sources rather than a single source; more specifically, crime has multiple components and multiple influences. Legislatures, for instance, create legal definitions of crime which are frequently expanded or restricted through interpretations made by administrative agencies and judges working in the judicial system.

Social values, both locally and nationally, further influence how certain definitions of crime are applied in various jurisdictions. What is considered a type of criminal obscenity in a religious county in Alabama, to be sure, may not be treated as criminally obscene in San Francisco. Crime is therefore an extraordinarily relative type of concept when it should be more objective if it is to retain any underlying legitimacy.

It has been noted in this respect that “Most people have a sense of what is criminal, but deciding precisely what is—or is not—criminal is not as obvious as it may seem. What is criminal to one person may be sharp business practice to another” (Lanier & Henry, 1998, p. 13). Relativism results in differential treatment, whether based on racial classifications or wealthy defendants versus poor defendants, and the criminal justice system’s inability to incorporate a uniformly objective approach to harm caused by certain behaviors renders it incapable of functioning fairly and justly.

Parents in Florida forget to strap their child into a car seat as prescribed by law and are charged with manslaughter when a subsequent car accident results in the death of that child; on the other hand, Ford executives in the Pinto case have criminal charges dismissed despite the fact that these executives knew about a design flaw and pursued production that resulted in multiple deaths and multiple injuries.

A strict review of the facts, ignoring whether the defendants were individuals or corporate executives shielded by a corporate structure, clearly and unequivocally indicates that crime is unevenly applied in ways that have unjust results. In the aforementioned example, an accident by individual parents results in criminal charges whereas intentional disregard for life is inadequate to legally attribute criminal liability to corporate executives for far graver consequences.

The root case of this miscarriage of justice is that crime is too narrowly confined to individual actions causing harm whereas it inadequately addresses harm caused by corporate actors. The Pinto case, though comparatively old, foreshadows the future of criminal justice because it provides a precedent through which violent acts can be committed without incurring criminal liability.