Both at home and abroad, white-collar crimes are essentially crimes of privilege (Benson and Simpson, 2015; Payne, 2017), often termed “crimes of the suite” rather than “crimes of the street.” The term white-collar crime was coined by Edwin H. Sutherland (1949:9) and first used in an address to the American Sociological Society in 1939. He criticized theories of crime emphasizing poverty and introduced class and power dimensions. “White-collar crime,” he proposed, “may be defined approximately as a crime committed by a person of respectability and high status in the course of his occupation.” He documented the existence of this form of crime with a study of the careers of 70 large, reputable corporations, which together had amassed 980 violations of the criminal law, or an average of 14 convictions apiece. Behind the offenses of false advertising, unfair labor practices, restraint of trade, price-fixing agreements, stock manipulation, copyright infringement, and outright swindles were perfectly respectable middle- and upper-middle-class executives.
Gilbert Geis (1978:279; 1994) argued that “white-collar crimes constitute a more serious threat to the well-being and integrity of our society than more traditional kinds of crime” and that workplace injuries, unnecessary surgeries, and illegal pollution consign far more people to the cemeteries than the offenses of traditional criminals. Moreover, as the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice (1967b:104) concluded, “White-collar crime affects the whole moral climate of our society.
Derelictions by corporations and their managers who usually occupy leadership positions in their communities, establish an example which tends to erode the moral base of the law.”
The full extent of white-collar crime is difficult to assess. Many illegal corporate activities go undetected, and many wealthy individuals are able to evade taxes for years without being found out. One of the more recent examples is Bernard “Bernie” Madoff who developed a sophisticated network of contacts across Jewish charities, synagogues, universities, and country clubs and managed to steal billions of dollars over a period of several years (LeBor, 2010).
White-collar crimes as “suite crimes” are generally considered less serious than the “street crimes” crimes of low-income people, and there is often strong pressure on the police and the courts not to prosecute at all in these cases—to take account of the offenders’ “standing in the community” and to settle the matter out of court. For example, a bank that finds its safe burglarized at night will immediately summon the police, but it may be more circumspect if it finds that one of its executives has embezzled a sum of money. To avoid unwelcome publicity, the bank may simply allow the offender to resign after making an arrangement for him or her to pay back whatever possible.
The concept of white-collar crime generally incorporates both occupational and corporate crimes (Coleman, 2006). Individuals commit occupational crime for personal gain in connection with their occupations. For example, physicians may give out illegal prescriptions for narcotics, make fraudulent reports for Medicare payments, and give false testimony in accident cases. Lawyers may engage in some illegalities, such as securing false testimony from witnesses, misappropriating funds in receivership, and being involved in various forms of ambulance chasing to collect fraudulent damage claims arising from accidents. Meanwhile, corporate crimes are illegal activities that are committed in the furtherance of business operations but that are not the central purpose of the corporation.
A convenient distinction between occupational and corporate crimes may be in the context of immediate and direct benefit to the perpetrator. In occupational crimes, generally the benefit is for the individual who commits a particular illegal activity. In corporate crime, the benefit is usually for the corporation. For example, a corporate executive bribes a public official to secure favors for the executive’s corporation. In this instance, the benefit would be for the corporation and not directly for the individual. The remainder of this section focuses on corporate crime.