Earlier this month, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) emerged from bankruptcy.
In 2018, they got away with murder 84 times.
That’s the way one might talk about the utilities company if we held them to
sparked the apocalyptic fires that destroyed the Californian town of Paradise.
For those keeping score at home, involuntary manslaughter in the state of California is typically
punishable by two to four years of incarceration. So by lowest estimates, if an individual rather than a corporation
was found responsible for this tragedy, they would
likely be facing (at the very least) 168 years in prison.
Instead, the company, worth over $17B, was held liable for just $3.5m in fines paid to the state
(in addition to the $500k to cover the cost of the investigation.)
“The court’s sentencing options in this case are limited,”
said State Judge Michael Deems, a vocal critic of California
law that sets the maximum manslaughter-by-corporation fine at $10,000 each. This criminal case, People of the State of California vs.
PG&E, took place in Butte County and was
live streamed on June 16th. Judge Deems called PG&E’s actions
a “callous disregard for the citizens of Butte county” and acknowledged how an individual would face a lifetime of incarceration for the same crime.
According to ABC, the fact that the corporation had to pay the same fine that an individual would pay,
without the added reality of incarceration, is insufficient in that $3.5m amounts to
“something more akin to a speeding ticket” for a multi billion dollar corporation.
From these examples, corporate personhood comes with a lot of perks and protections,
but cases like PG&E beg the question — what is the equivalent of appropriate corporate punishment?
Ironically, true financial accountability was
ultimately found in PG&E’s bankruptcy settlement.
The company filed for bankruptcy in January of 2019 when they realized they were facing $30B in liability for
their maintenance negligence. The federal government allowed PG&E the privilege of entering bankruptcy,
affording the utility generous time to reorganize their structure, pay back debts, and stay alive.
a trust fund that will compensate the tens of thousands of people who lost homes and businesses in wildfires.
If victims had more power…
Then the process of reconciliation could be
held through a restorative justice lens.
We need to radically reimagine what it means to center the victims of this crime instead of the perpetrator.
According to the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation, “restorative justice views crime as
more than breaking the law – it also causes harm to people, relationships, and the community.
So a just response must address those harms as well as the wrongdoing. If the parties are willing,
the best way to do this is to help them meet to discuss those harms and how to bring about resolution.”
If the state of California had more power…
Then we could treat PG&E like a returning citizen to our communities. Whether punished through a more substantive
fine to fit the scale of their wealth, or a more restorative process, we would still need to address the fact that
PG&E is essentially a “returning citizen,” someone who the state deemed has paid their debt to society and now
needs to function anew. We have to talk about the corporate equivalent of parole and reintegration. But in this case,
the entity has paid a fine, without much time to contemplate its crime or learn new skills. If PG&E wants to regain trust,
they have to agree to terms set by and for the communities they profit from and have failed in the past.
The Los Angeles Times summarizes the bleak reality of the justice process thus far:
the new PG&E looks a lot like the old PG&E. “PG&E is still a shareholder-owned utility,
one of the nation’s largest.
or the public-private entity proposed by state Sen. Scott Wiener,
or the purely public utility alluded to in a Bernie Sanders campaign ad.
San Francisco will not have an opportunity to buy its portion of PG&E’s electric grid.”