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Within the field of criminology, white-collar crime has been defined by Edwin Sutherland "...as a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation." Sutherland was a proponent of Symbolic Interactionism, and believed that criminal behaviour was learned from interpersonal interaction with others. White-collar crime therefore overlaps with corporate crime because the opportunity for fraud, bribery, insider trading, embezzlement, computer crime, and forgery is more available to white-collar employees.
Modern criminology generally rejects a limitation of the term by reference to type of crime and the topic is now divided:
- By the type of offense, e.g. property crime, economic crime, and other corporate crimes like environmental and health and safety law violations. Some crime is only possible because of the identity of the offender, e.g. transnational money laundering requires the participation of senior officers employed in banks. But the Federal Bureau of Investigation (1989) has adopted the narrow approach, defining white-collar crime at p3: "...as those illegal acts which are characterized by deceit, concealment, or violation of trust and which are not dependent upon the application or threat of physical force or violence". Because this approach is relatively pervasive in the United States, the record-keeping does not adequately collect data on the socioeconomic status of offenders which, in turn, makes research and policy evaluation problematic. Barnett concludes at p6, "The true extent and expense of white-collar crime are unknown. Summary-based UCR statistics can provide only a limited amount of information on a limited number of offenses."
- By the type of offender, e.g. by social class or high socioeconomic status, the occupation of positions of trust or profession, or academic qualification, researching the motivations for criminal behavior, e.g. greed or fear of loss of face if economic difficulties become obvious. Shover and Wright (2000) point to the essential neutrality of a crime as enacted in a statute. It almost inevitably describes conduct in the abstract, not by reference to the character of the persons performing it. Thus, the only way that one crime differs from another, "...is the backgrounds and characteristics of its perpetrators; the poor and disreputable fodder routinely encountered in police stations and in studies of street crime are seldom in evidence here. Most if not all white-collar offenders by contrast are distinguished by lives of privilege, much of it with origins in class inequality." But, equally, crime has become a normalized risk of postmodern life and the identity of criminal offenders is less relevant. Because of shifts in the socialization process, crime is associated with less guilt, the distinction between moral and immoral has weakened. Criminals are just doing what everyone else is doing (Lea: 2001).
- By organizational culture rather than the offender or offence which overlaps with organized crime. Appelbaum and Chambliss (1997:117) offer a two-fold definition:
- Occupational crime which occurs when crimes are committed to promote personal interests, say, by altering records and overcharging, or by the cheating of clients by professionals.
- Organizational or corporate crime which occurs when corporate executives commit criminal acts to benefit their company by overcharging or price fixing, false advertising, etc.and mad more stuff
Relationship to other types of crime
The types of crime committed are a function of the opportunities available to the potential offender. Thus, those employed in relatively unskilled environments and living in inner-city areas have fewer "situations" to exploit (see Clarke: 1997) than those who work in "situations" where large financial transactions occur and live in areas where there is relative prosperity. Note that Newman (2003) applies the Situational Crime Prevention strategy to e-crime where the opportunities can be more evenly distributed between the classes. Blue-collar crime tends to be more obvious and attract more active police attention (e.g. for crimes such as vandalism or shoplifting which protect property interests), whereas white-collar employees can intermingle legitimate and criminal behavior and be less obvious when committing the crime. Thus, blue-collar crime will more often use physical force whereas white-collar crime will tend to be more technical in nature, e.g. in the manipulation of accountancy or inventory records. In victimology, blue-collar crime attacks more obvious victims who report the crime, whereas in the corporate world, the identification of a victim is less obvious and the issue of reporting is complicated by a culture of commercial confidentiality to protect shareholder value. It is estimated that a great deal of white collar crime is undetected or, if detected, it is not reported.
The distinction is that white-collar crime is likely to be a crime against the corporation, whereas corporate crime is crime committed by the corporation, although the distinction blurs when the given crime promotes the interests of the corporation and its senior employees because a business entity can only act through the agency of the natural persons whom it employs (see corporate liability).
In terms of social class and status, those employed by the state, whether directly or indirectly, are more likely to be white-collar and so more state crime will be committed through the agency of white-collar employees.
Because the negotiation of agreements between a state and a corporation will be at a relatively senior level on both sides, this is almost exclusive a white-collar "situation" which offers the opportunity for crime.
Differential treatment for white-collar offenders
The empirical data clearly demonstrate a double standard between white-collar crimes and so-called street crimes. There are a number of reasons to explain why white-collar criminals are not more rigorously pursued. By virtue of their relative affluence, those accused as white-collar offenders are able to afford the fees of the best lawyers, and may have friends among senior ranks of the political elite (see Cronyism), the judiciary and the law enforcement agencies. These connections often not only ensure favourable treatment on an individual basis, but also enable laws to be drafted or resource allocations to be shifted to ensure that such crimes are not defined or enforced too strictly. It is a fact that virtually no police effort goes into fighting white-collar crime, and the enforcement of many corporate crimes is put into the hands of government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency which can act only as watchdogs and point the finger when an abuse is discovered. This more benign treatment is possible because the true cost of white-collar crime, while high in nationally consolidated accounts, is diffused through the bank balances of millions either by way of share value reductions, or nominal increases in taxation, or increases in the cost of insurance. And because it can be difficult to assign blame, e.g. environmental damage may be serious but corporations cannot be sent to jail and, if those senior officers are removed from their positions, it may be more damaging to the organization itself which employs many ordinary and innocent people, and to the shareholders who had no role to play in taking criminal decision. Different public policies are at work and there are differences in the level of public interest, case complexity, and a lack of white-collar related literature, all of which has a significant effect on the way white-collar offenders are sentenced, punished, and perceived by the public.
Another reason for differential treatment might be the fact that criminal penalties tend to be more related to the degree of physical force or violence involved than to the amount of monetary loss, all other things being equal. Because white-collar crimes are committed by those with opportunities that do not require violence, they are far less likely to garner more severe criminal penalties. For example, someone who mugs a victim on the street by threatening to knife them, and steals their wallet, might very likely be punished with a more severe sentence than an inside trader who cheats shareholders out of a million dollars.
- Appelbaum, Richard P. & Chambliss, William J. (1997). Sociology: A Brief Introduction. New York: Longman. ISBN 0-673-98279-3
- Barnet, Cynthia. The Measurement of White-Collar Crime Using Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Data. 
- Clarke, Ronald (ed). (1997). Situational Crime Prevention: Successful Case Studies (2nd edition). New York: Criminal Justice Press. ISBN 0-911577-38-6
- Friedrichs, David O. (2003) Trusted Criminals: White Collar Crime in Contemporary Society, Wadsworth. [ISBN 0-495-00604-1]
- Geis, G., Meier, R. & Salinger, L. (eds.) (1995). White-collar Crime: Classic & Contemporary Views. NY: Free Press.
- Green, Stuart P. (2006). Lying, Cheating, and Stealing: A Moral Theory of White Collar Crime. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Lea, John. (2001). Crime as Governance: Reorienting Criminology. 
- Leap, Terry L. (2007) Dishonest Dollars: The Dynamics of White-Collar Crime. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0-8014-4520-0
- Newman, Graeme R. & Clarke, Ronald V. (2003). Superhighway Robbery: Preventing E-commerce Crime. Portland, Or: Willan Publishing. ISBN 1-84392-018-2
- Reiman, J. (1998). The Rich get Richer and the Poor get Prison. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
- Rosoff, S., Pontell, H. & Tillman, R. (1998). Profit Without Honor: White-collar Crime and the Looting of America. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Shapiro, B. (1995). "Collaring the Crime, not the Criminal: Reconsidering the Concept of White-collar Crime", American Sociological Review 55: 346-65.
- Simon, D. & Eitzen, D. (1993). Elite Deviance. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
- Simon, D. & Hagan, F. (1999). White-collar Deviance. Boston: Allyn & Bacon
- Shover, Neal & Wright, John Paul (eds.) (2000). Crimes of Privilege: Readings in White-Collar Crime. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-513621-7
- Sutherland, Edwin Hardin (1949). White Collar Crime. New York: Dryden Press.
- Thiollet, J.P. (2002). Beau linge et argent sale — Fraude fiscale internationale et blanchiment des capitaux, Paris, Anagramme ed. ISBN 2 914571178
- U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation (1989). 'White Collar Crime: A Report to the Public. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.
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