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The definition and facts on White collar crime

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2717 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Corporate and white collar crime covers a broad spectrum of offences, including those committed against a company, consumers and society as a whole. It is often a non-violent crime committed with intent for substantial financial gain and can be committed by an individual or even a whole organisation. White collar crime involves embezzlement, money laundering, fraud, health and safety violations, environmental violations as well as sales of faulty goods and services (Schicor, 1989). White-collar crime incurs costs on individuals, society, the environment as well as the economy and can cause major disadvantages and even physical injury as well as death (Hale et al., 2009, p.304). Although the crimes that consist of white collar crime are generally understood to be the same there is still controversy as to the actual description of the perpetrator of white collar crime, despite the term suggesting that it is considered an upper class activity. Before Edwin Sutherland’s definition of white collar crime, however, there was little research and interest in the subject, due to the nature of acquiring the information as well as the social stigmas surrounding it. Also that period of time was Sutherland’s interest in the subject was due to his desire to draw away from the assumptions that crime was a working class occupation and was committed solely by the stereotypical working class man. He suggested that if taken at face value, official statistics implicate that the lower classes tended to commit the most crime and fail to properly represent middle class and crime committed within businesses (Newburn, 2007, p.375).

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This attitude was quite revolutionary as it rattled the social class assumptions about criminal activity and highlighted the failings of official statistics at being able to be wholly representative. It also came at a time where the social classes were being re-evaluated due to the impending war. Sutherland was really the first person to investigate the deviant behaviour and illegal activities going on behind the scenes of the faceless corporations and the high status people that run it.

However since Sutherland’s statement there has been further development into this little explored subject and several criticisms and new definitions have now arisen, challenging this perhaps outdated view.

Tappan was amongst one of the first people to criticise the legal implications of Sutherland’s definition stating that the term crime should only refer to actions cited as such by law and that Sutherland should not label it as such until a conviction had taken place (cited in Minkes and Minkes, 2008, p.11). Tappan also suggested that although not strictly criminal the deviant practices conducted within a business is often the norm (Newburn, 2007, p.374). Furthermore this deviant behaviour is not considered a crime in accordance with the law despite Sutherland labelling it as such (McGrath, 2011).

Sutherland on the other hand retaliated with the statement that deviant behaviour also results in penalties and punishments, despite it being non criminal behaviour, due to the judgements of fault and responsibility. Sutherland stated that the difference was in the procedures instead of the wrongness of the behaviour and activities (Croall, 2001, p.13).

This difference was explained using the differential association theory which indicates that white collar crimes, ‘differ in incidents, rather than essentials’ and suggests that rather than being exposed to influences that reject and discourage offending, instead they, the people in the organisations are exposed to influences that support offending and deviant behaviour. Sutherland continued to put forward that crime is a learned behaviour through interaction and communication with other people which is then put into practice once the means and motive have been acquired (Sutherland cited in Newburn, 2007, p.385) . This idea is similar to Bandura’s social learning theory where it is suggested that all behaviour is learned and imitated.

However overall Tappan’s view disagrees with the legal terminology of Sutherland’s statement and not the class and status implications of it, which is a significant aspect of the definition. Nonetheless further research and theories have shown some disparity with Sutherland’s definition such as the self control theory and critical theory with some studies showing no difference between the social classes of offenders.

What is more Gottfredson and Hirschi’s self control theory (1990, cited in Grasmick et al, 1993) found hardly any differences between age, gender and social class of conventional offenders and white collar crime offenders. They suggested that the main motivation to offend was due to a pursuit of self interest and pleasure rather than social status and occupational position and the findings are in opposition of Sutherland’s definition (Newburn, 2007, p.385). However this is quite a general theory with Gottfredson and Hirschi stating that this motivation could be the single factor that explains all criminal behaviour, which is highly doubtful as many other factors have been shown to influence criminal behaviour. Also normal crime reports were used which does not have separate categories for white collar and blue collar crime, which could represent a biased view towards lower class offenders, which Sutherland had previously discovered (Croall, 2001, p.83 ).

Conversely the critical theory (Pearce, 1976; Slapper and Tombs, 1999 cited in Newburn, 2007, p.386) argued that we should look at the structure of society as a way to explain criminal behaviour, in the sense that the configuration of society is criminogenic in itself. Punch (1996) further develops the idea that is the organisation in itself that is criminogenic as it provides the means, motive, setting and opportunity to commit white collar crime as well as corporate crime (cited in, Croall, 2001, p.85). They also suggested that white collar crime is detrimental to capitalism and the economy whilst blackening the credibility of the country’s economical reputation, such as the recent banker’s scandal and consequent recession highlights.

Another example of the structure of the organisation itself being criminogenic is in the case of Leeson and Barings, which resulted in seven hundred and forty million pounds being lost and ironically the bank going bankrupt. In this case there was only one man convicted, Mr. Leeson, who worked for Barings Bank and was enabled to lose this amount through numerous system failings and protocol not being followed. Although Leeson did make several bad decisions and was partly to blame for the banks demise, collectively the whole organisation was to blame for not following the procedures it had implemented to ensure that this wouldn’t happen. Despite this only Leeson carried out a jail sentence and was somewhat made into a scapegoat for the collective failure of the organisation (Minkes and Minkes, 2008, p. 110).

This illustration somewhat correlates with Sutherland’s idea of the crime being committed by a person of, ‘respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation,’ as the banker’s scandal and the Leeson and Barings case reiterates, although this is an example of deviant behaviour rather than a crime in Tappan’s point of view. Furthermore, although it produced a strong moral outrage, no one was convicted in the banker’s scandal due to it being a normal practice in business.

This example also evidences the Marxist viewpoint, which comments on how the structure of society, particularly the justice system benefits and reflects the interests of the upper classes, whereby the large corporations and powerful positions were protected, such as the bankers and politicians. This somewhat extremist view also dictates that this was a means for the powerful to control the lower classes as well (Pearce 1976, cited in Croall, 2001, p.3). The nature of white collar crime does to some extent support this view with statistics showing that one in three American’s have been made victims of white collar crime, whilst only forty-one percent report the crime. Overall this suggests that only eight percent of all white collar crime has actually reached the justice system, according to the National Public Survey on White Collar crime (Johnston, 2002 ).

What is more, Pearce and Box (1983 cited in Minkes and Minkes, 2008, p.10) infer that corporations and businesses will always put profit first, rating it more highly than safety and security of their employees as well as customers, especially in a capitalist economy. This idea seems more modern with its connotation of a white collar criminal although this is more of an example of a corporate criminal. However it still follows the main foundation of Sutherland’s statement, that the crime will be committed in the pursuit of their career.

Mars (1984) on the other hand, said there should be a differentiation between white-collar crime, or crimes committed in the course of the career ladder and crimes committed by people for their own benefit in the course of work. This occupational deviance correlates more with Sutherland’s idea of the perpetrator of white- collar crime, although this explanation does not discriminate between the social classes, merely in the reason as to why the crime was committed. It has some similarities with Gottfredson and Hirschi’s self control theory (1990) and the idea that self interest is the main motivation rather than class (Minkes and Minkes, 2008, p.12).

In his definition, Sutherland also discriminated between gender stating that white- collar crime would be committed by a man rather than a woman in the course of their career. The connotations associated with this definition is of a white middle aged man in a powerful position or high social status and neglects women and doesn’t discriminate between ethnic minorities, which is a prevalent issue today. However Sutherland’s idea still has some relevance today as on a whole, men do commit more crimes than women, with four out of five offenders being male, according to the Office of National Statistics (Great Britain. Directgov, 2004).

Furthermore in accordance with Sutherland’s prediction few women have ever been convicted of white-collar crime. Of all the two hundred prosecutions only fifteen involved women, who were all thought to be junior partners (Croall, 2001, p.55).

However further research has shown that this gender gap of offences is narrowing which could be down to a change in policies enabling more convictions from women, although it’s not clear whether there is a rise in white- collar crime offending amongst women.

Often women are not considered for sampling or data restrictions cause women to be left out of research and studies, which Sutherland himself is guilty of, when the gender of the employees were not differentiated from and excluded from use as a comparative factor (Holtfreter, 2005).

However a reanalysis study conducted by Daly, who used both a male and female sample of offenders of white collar crime, and based on her findings, came to the conclusion that neither sample matched Sutherland’s definition and criteria of being a high status offender of white collar crime. Daly also found that in actual fact women were more common to have lower class occupations and lower paid jobs whilst the men were more likely to be in the higher status positions within the organisation. Education was also a factor as the women offenders had a poor educational background and the findings show that in this case, gender did contribute to opportunities to commit certain types of white collar crime such as occupational fraud. This shows that only a small minority of women are able to fit the white- collar criminal profile which correlates with Sutherland’s definition and profile (Daly, 1989). In actuality this is more in keeping and reflects today’s society with men and women having equal opportunity to commit white- collar crime, although men have much more of an advantage. In relation to this feminists would argue that organisations and corporations are a patriarchal hierarchy with females finding it hard to climb up the corporate ladder and break the glass ceiling, meaning that men have many more opportunities to commit white-collar crime than women.

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Another feminist argument is that gender relations and constructs are not equal or based on the same principles; instead they are constructed through men’s dominance over women and through their superior political and economical power over women. Also women are constrained much more by class and hierarchies than men are which reiterates the previous point that men are able to have much better career prospects and occupational mobility in big corporations and organisations than women have (Cullen, Wright, and Blevins, 2008, pp. 218).

Although feminists would argue about the discrimination of gender in Sutherland’s profile the statistics continue to support the fact that on a whole men do commit more crime than women and significantly far fewer women have been convicted of white collar crime than men.

Furthermore the main argument concerning Sutherland’s definition and profile is the use of the term white- collar, as it refers to all jobs that are not manual labour or blue collar occupations, which significantly increases the number of potential white- collar criminals.

Quinney ( Croall, 2001, p.7) stated that anyone can overhear a tip off or means to commit white-collar crime so therefore the term should be redefined as ‘occupational crime’ and would therefore not be as reductionist as Sutherland’s definition

On the other hand Braithwaite (Newburn, 2007, p.377) argues that the term is; ‘shared and understood by ordinary folk as more meaningful than occupational crime… or any competing concept.’ Braithwaite is in support for Sutherland’s definition as it is more easily understood and accepted by the wider population, as it is often these people who are the victim; take the MP’s expenses scam for example, so it is important for the term to be understood in order to be able to detect the crime more easily.

In conclusion Sutherland’s definition is still reflected into society today, despite the lack of legal terminology which Tappan disputed, as the majority of people would agree with his profile and description of a white-collar criminal. Many recent scandals support the Marxist theory and Sutherland’s statement that it is committed by a person of respectability and high social status and emphasises the connotations associated with a white-collar criminal. Recent definitions such as Mars have built upon the foundations that Sutherland created but are still differing in their definitions of how white-collar crime and criminal should be defined as. Moreover the argument continues as to how best to categorise the definition and what factors influence a white-collar criminalist. Indeed only Gottfredson and Hirschi’s self control study has seriously challenged Sutherland’s definition, although normal crime statistics were used which are biased at portraying the working class as committing the most crime, something which motivated Sutherland to revolutionise how criminologists looked at crime and create his definition.

Despite being produced in a more class orientated period and male dominant time, Sutherland’s reasons as to why he produced this statement can still be put into effect today with some statistics supporting it, displaying the accuracy and relevance of it in today’s society.

The fact that criminologists still refer to Sutherland just shows how groundbreaking and durable it is and how examples in today’s society reiterate the important message that Sutherland was trying to portray.


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