American responses to white-collar crime, especially corporate wrongdoing, passed a turning point in 1991 with the enactment of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines for Organizations, which adopted a “carrot and stick” approach to sentencing corporate offenders, including big incentives for companies introducing compliance programs. In the 2000s, this approach was enhanced by the enactment of the Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002 and the Thompson memo of 2003. In addition to the effects of the Thompson memo, federal prosecutors, learning from the fate of Arthur Andersen, came increasingly to rely on deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs) and non-prosecution agreements (NPAs) after 2005. However, the Yates memo issued in September 2015 may change Department of Justice policy on corporate wrongdoing dramatically, particularly regarding investigation and prosecution of individuals.
In thinking about and conceptualizing legal and political responses to white-collar crime, two main actors are meaningful: the corporation and the individual. Today, a corporation is criminally liable under the respondeat superior doctrine in federal criminal law, and corporate offenders are sentenced under the Organizational Sentencing Guidelines, which provide for fines, restitution, and probation as possible criminal penalties. In recent years, around 150–200 organizations have been sentenced under the Sentencing Guidelines annually.
An individual white-collar criminal may be personally liable for their unlawful acts even if the corporation itself is convicted too. Individuals may be convicted absent any showing of mens rea in rare cases (strict liability crime and “willful blindness”). In the last decade, more than 8,000 individuals were prosecuted and convicted, for around a 90% conviction rate. One effect of the Yates memo may be to shift the main target of legal and political response to white-collar crime from the corporation to the individual. New policies under the Yates memo also come with new problems, for instance, that companies may lose incentive to introduce a compliance program or may look for scapegoats to escape prosecution themselves.