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White Collar Crimes : Are They Really Crimes?

Updated on July 17, 2017
Mikal Christine profile image

Mikal is a Kenyan law student. She enjoys researching about the most fascinating and the most intriguing bits of the criminal justice system


More money has been stolen at the point of a pen than at the point of a gun.

Edwin H. Sutherland's Presidential Address

In 1939, a famed criminologist Edwin H. Sutherland during his presidential address to the American Sociological Society defined white collar crimes as violations of the criminal law, committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation.

Sutherland also noted that white collar criminals are far less likely to be investigated, arrested or prosecuted compared to other types of criminal offenders. This is due primarily to their social standing. Examples of white collar crimes include Antitrust violations, Bankruptcy fraud, Trade secret theft, Embezzlement, Environmental law violation, Health care fraud, Insider trading, Insurance fraud, Money laundering, Securities fraud, Tax evasion and Wire fraud.

Causes of White Collar Crimes

When Edwin H. Sutherland fast coined the term white collar crime, he wrote : A hypothesis is needed that will explain both white collar criminality and lower class criminality. If one was not aware of the fact that the concept of white collar crime arose as a reaction to the idea that crime is concentrated in the lower class, there would be nothing to distinguish it from other forms of crime.

This is because white collar criminals are motivated by the same forces that drive other criminals i.e self interest, pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. They are not as dangerous as other forms of crime, they provide relatively large rewards, the rewards may follow quickly from their commission, sanctions associated with them may be vague or only rarely imposed, and they may require only minimal effort from those with the requisite skills to engage in them.

The reason why white collar criminals are not perceived as criminals is because they exhibit traits which are not expected to be found in a typical crime. These include high educational levels, a commitment to the status quo, personal motivation to succeed and attention to conventional appearances.

Australian criminologist John Brathwaite says that white collar criminals are frequently motivated by a disparity between corporate goals and the limited opportunities available to business people through conventional business practices. When pressured to achieve goals which may be unattainable within the existing framework of laws and regulations surrounding their business endeavors, innovative corporate officers may turn to crime to meet organizational demands.

Brathwaite also suggests that corporate culture socializes building executives into clandestine and frequently illegal behavioral modalities, making it easier for them to violate the law when pressures to perform mount. The hostile relationship that frequently exists between businesses and government agencies that regulate them may further spur corporate officers to evade the law.

How Can White Collar Crimes be Curbed?

Brathwaite emphasizes his belief that the potential for shame associated with discovery - whether by enforcement agencies, the public or internal corporate regulations - can have a powerful deterrent effect on most white collar workers because they are fundamentally conservative individuals who are otherwise seeking success through legitimate means.

He also recommends the implementation of an accountability model, which would hold all those responsible for white collar crimes accountable.

White collar crimes are generally hard to investigate and prosecute for a number of reasons. For one thing, white collar criminals are generally better educated than other offenders and are therefore better able to conceal their activities. Cases against white collar offenders must often be built on evidence of a continuing series of offenses. Often, the evidence can only be understood by financial experts and can be difficult to explain in courts. White collar criminals also have huge financial resources at their disposal and can easily hire excellent defense attorneys who may not be readily available to defendants with lesser resources.

In his book, The Criminal Elite : The Sociology of White Collar Crime, James Coleman suggests four areas of reforms through which white collar crimes may be effectively addressed:

  • Ethical Reforms - Stronger and more persuasive codes of business should be established.
  • Enforcement Reforms - Enforcement reforms center on the belief that white collar criminals must be more severely punished, but they also include initiatives such as better funding for enforcement agencies dealing with white collar crimes, larger research budgets for white collar crimes investigation and the insulation of enforcement personnel from undue political influences.
  • Structural Reforms - This includes basic changes in the corporate and leadership structure to make white collar crimes more difficult to commit.

It is notable that most governments in the world spend huge amounts of resources in an effort to protect white collar criminals since they are the most powerful and actually control most of the major operations in the government and in the corporate world. White collar crimes are non violent, deliberate, well planned and are characterized by peer support. In a world where there is a large gap between the rich and the poor, white collar crimes can be described as the crimes of the rich.


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