We have had previous mention of white-collar criminality in this section, but now we’re going to look at it in a little more detail. In early criminology many criminologists thought that the majority of crime took place in the lower classes and that poverty was a good explanation for why individuals turn to crime. The reason why people did not focus on criminal behaviour in the upper classes as much, was that these people have greater power, and can therefore avoid punishment for their crimes much more easily. They can afford better lawyers and so are often not caught and are also rarely labelled with criminality. Furthermore, because those in the upper classes decide what the crimes are, as they are more likely to be politicians or have good contacts, the ‘crimes’ (against humanity) that they commit are often not actually illegal, just immoral.
As a series of major financial scandals emerged in the 1980s, more and more criminologists started to believe that poverty was not the answer, and that there must be other reasons for individuals to act criminally. The area of white collar crime focusses more on those in the upper classes that take part in crime and considers why. Edwin Sutherland argued that general theories of crime could not be used to explain white collar crime, being based only on the biased sample of lower class criminal acts. He argued that the reason for our lack of knowledge of this crime was due to the unfairness of the criminal justice system.
Sutherland defined the term white collar crime as ‘a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation’. This definition not only specified that the term should be restricted to the upper classes, but also that it should be just those crimes that happen within the workplace, ruling out crimes of passion such as murder. Later the term was broadened to include two groups, occupational and organisational crime. The former is committed by individuals within the workplace, either acting for the company or against them. It could be that they do not complete all the proper safety checks that they are supposed to, or that they steal office supplies. On the other hand, organisational crime is where the entire corporation is corrupt, for example if the business involves conning customers.
In white collar crime, often the offences are very hard to prosecute for. This is for a number of reasons. To begin, they tend to be invisible to the outside world. When a company moves its money illegally to avoid paying taxes, there is no way for anyone to know. The only way that the government can find out about cases such as this is by doing regular checks of companies to make sure that they are keeping to the law. The problem is, it is very difficult to know which companies to focus on. Furthermore, it is often not identified since it affects each victim very little, but it still has an extremely high reward. Even if the company just steals £200 from each victim, if there are millions of victims across the country then the company can make billions of pounds illegally. It is also difficult to prosecute white collar criminals since the crimes are so technical and often juries will not understand the seriousness of what has been done. Identifying just one person who is to blame for the serious crimes is also hard, since in the case of organisational crime, there may be many people with varying degrees of responsibility, and not all of them can be punished.
Of course, the fact it is so unnoticeable and hard to punish is one of the reasons why so many people still commit white-collar crime. The best that we can do is to speculate on how we can stop it. In the next few articles, I’ll be considering various theories of white-collar crime and perhaps they hold the answer.
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