UC Law Environmental Journal


The use of criminal enforcement tools is necessary for deterring and punishing environmental offenses involving significant harm or culpable conduct. Yet we have very limited empirical knowledge of how the criminal enforcement of environmental laws has functioned historically in the Golden State. Through content analysis of prosecution summaries for every federal criminal investigation undertaken by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the State of California that led to criminal prosecution, 1983-2019, we are able to provide a comprehensive account of what laws are violated, how prosecutors charge environmental criminals, and how these criminals are sentenced, illustrating broader themes in prosecutions over thirty-seven years. Findings demonstrate that monetary penalties exceeded $230 million and that defendants received over 7,800 months of probation and almost 1,500 months of incarceration. Forty-five percent of prosecutions focused on water pollution, seventeen percent hazardous waste, fifteen percent air pollution, and fifteen percent state-level crimes. We conclude by arguing that environmental criminal enforcement may be enhanced through community policing, resources, and public salience.