White collar crime US

The term ‘white collar crime’ had been evading a clear definition for a long time. Only some writers on white collar crime would attempt to define the term and that too very briefly, before moving to other issues and findings on the subject. Definitional and conceptual issues on white collar crime lie mainly on the description of the criminal-non-criminal distinction. The term generally means an illegal act or a series of acts committed by an individual or a business entity using non-violent means to obtain a personal or business advantage.

The concept of white collar crime was introduced by Edwin Sutherland during his address to American Sociological Society in 1939. His major work on white collar crime focused on crimes of corporations. White collar crime overlaps with corporate crime, which are crimes committed by a corporation, as the corporation is represented by individuals having an interest in it. Certain corporations in the guise of legitimate business perform secret criminal activities mingled with legal activities to escape detection. They amass wealth through their illegal activities and use the corporation to launder their ill-gotten wealth.

The world’s gross criminal product has been estimated at 20 percent of world trade. (de Brie 2000). As the corporation is only a legal entity, the person or persons at the helm of the corporation’s affairs was held accountable. The corporation lacking a mind of its own was not found capable of a crime and therefore could not be held guilty of a crime. However, this is no longer the situation today. Mokhiber and Weismann (1999) argues that at one level, corporations develop new technologies and economies of scale. These may serve the economic interests of mass consumers by introducing new products and more efficient methods of mass production.

On another level, given the absence of political control today, corporations serve to destroy the foundations of the civic community and the lives of people who reside in them. Both, the corporation as an entity  and its directors are liable for criminal acts. Any study on criminology would be incomplete if it does not incorporate the trends in business and corporate crimes and the development of relevant laws to tackle them. Unlike other crimes and the laws to deal with them, those associated with corporations need to be constantly reviewed and developed.

This is because corporations develop newer technologies and services, bringing in newer opportunities for crime. The crimes for which a corporation can be indicted include manslaughter, homicide, arson and theft. The corporation can also be indicted for crime if any of its top management members had authorized, committed, commanded or tolerated the crime. In 1984, a seven member US sentencing commission was set up to standardize sentences for federal crimes. The need for standardization was that, if individuals had an idea of the punishment or penalty they would receive for a particular crime, they would stay clear of crime.

The commission also drew guidelines for the sentencing of corporate employees, charged with crime. These federal sentencing guidelines have brought a change in the way corporations view and deal with potential wrongdoing. Small and large businesses, banks, law firms are covered by the guidelines intended to punish violations of federal crimes like antitrust, securities, employment laws, mail and wire fraud, commercial bribery kick backs and money laundering. (Frank and Miller). White collar crimes are sometimes referred to as ‘deviance’ rather than crime (Ermann and Lundman, 1996).

This is however opposed by Friedrichs on the grounds that deviance is only suitable for persons who are fundamentally or visibly different from the mainstream members like homosexuals, drug addicts etc. White collar crime offenders are fully integrated into the mainstream of the society and certain white collar offenders even adhere to the existing occupational and organizational rules rather than deviating from it. Thus deviance from mainstream norms lacks clarity when referred to white collar crimes. There is no doubt that criminological theories have played a big role in present day crime management.

Criminological theory from its generation, evaluation and interpretation into laws and procedures aim to make our society a better place to live.


David O. Friedrichs, Criminal Justice 2002, Sage Publications William F. Skinner and Anne M. Fream (1997) A social learning theory analysis of computer crime among college student. Journal of research in crime and delinquency. Sage Publications Douglas A. Smith and Robert Brame, 1994 On the initiation and continuation of delinquency Clinard, Marshall B. and Richard Quinney (1973 [1967]) ‘Criminal Behavior Systems: A Typology. New York: Rinehart& Winston.