Crime and Punishment

White-collar crimes committed by celebrities are still treated as peccadilloes. But people like Uli Hoeneß are no better than any other criminal and should be judged by the same standards.

When prisons were introduced in Germany in the 16th century, the main form of punishment was still physical: death penalties or the infliction of pain and torture. Prisons or penitentiaries (Zuchthäuser) were mainly used to keep unwanted people – prostitutes, petty criminals, the poor and the physically and mentally disabled – off the streets and locked away from a society that could not deal with their “dysfunctions”.

Looking at the outcome of the trial against the German football legend and former president of Bayern Munich, Uli Hoeneß, who evaded up to 33 million Euros in taxes, perhaps not that much has changed. He has been given a 42-month prison sentence but is hoping for an “open imprisonment” (offener Vollzug), meaning that he would only have to spend his nights in the Landsberg correctional facility. It seems that prison is still a place for sub-human delinquents and not for people like Hoeneß, who are perfectly normal and who do not need to be re-socialized, nor kept off the streets.

Just like the mafia

Open imprisonment is often celebrated for being progressive, lenient and advanced. It gives the prisoner a fair chance to prove that he has turned a new leaf. Whilst usually a privilege awarded for good conduct in the advanced stages of re-socialization, it is not uncommon for tax evaders to be afforded this treatment immediately. This raises a crucial question: are tax evaders “real” criminals? Is tax evasion only a semi-criminal? Or are wealth and power mitigating factors in the commission of great crime?

Antitrust violations, tax evasion and endemic corruption in the financial sector are almost an accepted part of the system. The human stain of the homo oeconomicus. Such behaviour is part and parcel of the way the wealthy and the powerful act and we have come to accept it. Although Hoeneß had admitted to the crime, Bayern Munich waited for the judgement before asking Hoeneß to quit his position as chairman of Germany’s most prestigious football club – breaking the ethical standards of their own corporate governance code. Like the mafia, the wealthy and powerful of any state either live by their own rules or have managed to create special psychological and moral barriers against the enforcement of such.

White-collar crimes are not only harder to prosecute and more socially acceptable; their practitioners are also still treated and seen as full humans – more or less moral beings – unlike their criminal colleagues further down the social hierarchy.

Of course the powerful and wealthy – even those that commit crimes and break the law – are not “pure evil” any more than is a petty thief. Bill Gates may have broken antitrust rules over several decades, but all of this is forgotten in light of the incredible outreach of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Why would judges and the media not sympathise with Uli Hoeneß, whom they have loved so dearly for decades? Unlike most hoodlums, Uli Hoeneß was given numerous opportunities to prove that he is not “merely” a criminal. In the end, Hoeneß’ social commitments, his lifetime achievement and his (extremely inaccurate and delayed) confession were weighted against the crime.

Different people, different standards

This may be an important component of a fair trial and its implied assessment of a person’s moral character, but how often do the family or community commitments of benefit cheats or small-time drug dealers get taken into consideration as a benefit to the state and society at large?

What would it take to see Klaus Zumwinkel, Boris Becker, Peter Graf and the likes actually spend the time of their sentence behind bars? 1,2 Million? 1,7 Million? 6,29 Million? 33 Million? How high does the number need to be?

Read more in this column Juliane Mendelsohn: What the law can’t fix

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