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For years, society has struggled with the question of how to justly punish what are called “victimless crimes,” even though these activities shock and disgust most decent people. You know: prostitution, illegal gambling, recreational drug use, and the continued broadcast of “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Unfortunately, there can be many victims of “victimless” crimes. Women and children can be forced into prostitution against their will. Addicts turn to robbery and other crimes to support their dangerous habit. And “Grey’s Anatomy” is a proven gateway show that leads to the hardcore brain-damaging degradation that comes from watching “Girls.”

But now our elected law enforcement officials have successfully invented the exact opposite of the victimless crime: the criminal-less crime.

Blocked from the cell block

The criminal-less crime is a situation where a great deal of criminal activity is known to have taken place, often creating billions of dollars in damage and inflicting real pain and suffering from which the victims may never fully recover. But the actual perpetrators of these acts never are identified, much less slapped into handcuffs and hauled off to jail. Instead, they remain anonymous and unpunished while their employers admit no guilt and pay a manageable, often tax-deductible fine that frequently is applied to some charitable purpose. And they do it all while promising they’ll never again break the laws they swear they didn’t break in the first place.

These ongoing enterprises are well known: Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup and other financial “services” firms whose names are frequently followed in news reports by the phrase, “will pay $XX million in fines to settle criminal charges.”

Typically, executives at these companies either ignored or encouraged their employees to steal hundreds of thousands of homes through illegal foreclosures, to lie that worthless bonds were prime investments, or to commit serial fraud and perjury on state and federal courts by creating millions of bogus legal documents. Then they pay a fine as part of the cost of doing business, and promise they’ll never do it again, until the next time they find it more convenient to steal and lie rather than run their businesses in a legitimate manner.

The strength of our non-convictions

In the most recent cases, credit agency Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services will pay $77 million to settle charges of fraud in recent ratings of commercial mortgages brought by New York, Massachusetts and the Securities and Exchange Commission. According to the SEC, one of the S&P employees balked at the scheme, because he feared, it “could lead to him sit(ting) in front of (the) Department of Justice or the SEC.”

So the dude’s clairvoyant — but not convicted.

S&P, of course, admits no wrongdoing and agreed to a one-year ban on rating commercial mortgage-backed securities. Along with the fines, the penalty is so mild that analysts at Piper Jaffray noted in a report that while it’s “a black eye for S&P, it will likely have minimal financial impact.” Unlike, say jail time for the criminals who knowingly committed the actual fraud.

There’s also the news that Wells Fargo Bank and JPMorgan Chase Bank will pay nearly $36 million to settle complaints from the Maryland attorney general’s office and the federal Consumer Finance Protection Board that more than 100 loan officers in 21 branches at the two banks took illegal kickbacks between 2011 and 2014 for steering home loans to a Maryland-based title company that’s now out of business.

In a statement, Wells Fargo maintains the bank cooperated with authorities, fired the workers involved and “does not tolerate improper activities.”

But the bank has an odd way of handling things it “does not tolerate.” According to the CFPB, Wells “did not identify or address the illegal conduct,” despite warnings and even one federal lawsuit. While both banks signed consent agreements that their employees won’t accept bribes in the future, none of the people who took the admitted criminal pay-offs is being charged with crimes, according to the Maryland attorney general’s office.

It’s hard to see any real deterrence here. Hitting a bank with a fine that would be big enough to really hurt just means the bank would find the money by closing branches or laying off innocent workers, and no one wants that. But law enforcement officials have a proven method of holding up bad examples, called “jail.” Or at least, “a criminal trial.”

Just for fun, let’s consider what would happen if the concept of crimes without criminals was extended to more common illegal behavior. I think the news reports would go a little like this:

Prosecutors say a Glover Township man will pay $10,000 to settle charges of grand theft of an automobile. Jeb Dale has already satisfied $8,000 of the settlement by donating the car to charity, minus the cost of gasoline he put into the stolen car. The owner of the car continues to pursue Dale in civil court for the return of property from the stolen vehicle, including several Springsteen CDs and a new pine tree air freshener.

Dale did not admit guilt, saying, in a written statement that, “I look forward to resolving this issue amicably. Besides, I never even drove that car, and if I did, I borrowed it from a friend.” Dale attributed his possession of the car to “an innocent paperwork mix-up” caused by his failure to notice that the name on the vehicle registration wasn’t his.

A Pixieville family will make a $50 donation in the form of several unused toothbrushes from the downstairs bathroom to the Southwest Dental Foundation to settle charges that at least one of its members was involved in the destruction of a gumball machine outside a local convenience store. “We look forward to moving Pixieville forward in the quest for better dental hygiene,” Brad Johnson, a father of two, said in a written statement. Timmy Johnson, 11, admitted no guilt, saying only, “Mistakes were made. Gum was chewed.”

A Berkland man will pay a $250 fine and admit no wrongdoing to settle charges that he shoplifted four live lobsters from an area supermarket by stuffing them down his trousers. The fine was settled by a donation of lemons and butter to the Berkland Oceanic Research Institute. “I look forward to putting this controversy behind me,” Bud Schultz said in a letter to local prosecutors. Schultz attributed the incident to “inadequate bagging facilities in the self-checkout lane” of the store. As a result, Schultz wrote, “Lobsters were inadvertently pantsed.”

As you can see, expanding the concept of criminal-less crime from bankers to the wider criminal class presents an opportunity to radically reshape America’s criminal justice system and create helpful charitable donations in place of stodgy fines and jail time, while saving taxpayers the cost of trials and prisons. The only downside I see is that we’ll have to add on to the motto engraved over the Supreme Court building:

“Equal Justice Under Law — We Take Checks.”

Brian O’Connor is author of the award-winning book, “The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese.”

boconnor@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2145

Twitter: @BrianOCTweet

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