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Society & the Criminal

Updated on December 13, 2017

The White Collar Criminal

by Amber Maccione

When talking to people about crime and who they would consider to be a criminal, most would picture a male dressed poorly who looks mean, hard, or like the world has taken a toll on him. Most people do not picture a well-to-do individual in a suit and tie that seems to have the whole world at his fingertips because of his educational background, middle to high-class upbringing, and the success that the corporate world has brought him. But according to Dr. David Whyte, more killing, maiming, and stealing happen amongst those of money than those who are poor, lack opportunity, or have a lapse in morality (Short Cuts TV 2010). Most people fail to recognize that crime is not just something that stems from poverty. Crime also happens because of people’s greed and their need to avoid being caught. So who really can know who a criminal is? It would seem that anyone could fall prey to crime and becoming a criminal in the eyes of the law.

Edwin Sutherland
Edwin Sutherland | Source

Edwin Sutherland

Edwin Sutherland was one of the first sociologists to introduce white collar crimes. He was rather tired of the fact that most people only focused on those of poverty that committed street crimes. He was tired of the disproportional picture that was being painted (Barnett). What had been happening in the early to mid-nineteen hundreds was that the focus of crime and the criminal was solely on street crimes. People had turned a blind eye to the crimes of the well-to-do (Barnett). Sutherland wanted to break the myth that crime was just about social deprivation, poverty, lack of opportunity, and poor sense of morality (Short Cuts TV 2010). He wanted to open the eyes of others to the fact that crime could also arise from those who seemed to have it all – those of wealth, status, and power (Collica & Furst 2012 p. 81).

Sutherland defined white-collar crime as “crime committed by a person of high respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation” (Collica & Furst 2012 p. 82). The problem with this definition is that it defines something by the offender rather than by the offense. This makes it hard to measure. Over time, the definition has changed in order for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) can measure white collar crime (Barnett). The FBI defines white collar crime 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” (Barnett). People or corporations commit such acts in order to obtain things such as money, property, services. They also do so to avoid losing money and/or services, having to pay for something, or to secure an advantage either personally or business-wise (Barnett). Some of the crimes that are considered to be white collar include: larceny-theft, fraud, bribery, counterfeiting/forgery, embezzlement, bad checks, tax law violations, health and safety violations, environmental law violations (Barnett), money laundering, identity theft, and political corruption (Collica & Furst 2012 p. 82).

Although Sutherland has made us aware of white collar crime, it is still one of the hardest types of crime to prosecute. One of the reasons is because the crime is done most of the time by corporations. Society still believes that corporations do not kill rather it is people who kill (Barnett). Hence, prosecution must find the leader within the corporation instead of taking down the corporation in itself (Barnett). Once prosecution has the person to be held responsible, there are four areas which they must juggle: criminal intent, the person’s credibility, the person’s defense team, and society’s misconception that white collar crime isn’t serious (Iwata 2005).

Criminal Intent

With all crimes, criminal intent must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt in order to convict someone. With white collar crimes, the prosecution has to be able to prove that the person on trial’s words and actions prove this (Iwata 2005). This can be termed as “what was the motive?”. With white collar crimes, motive revolves around greed, cutting corners, and either advancing one’s stauts/postion or advancing the company as a whole (Collica & Furst 2012 p. 84). But white collar crimes can also revolve around risk and manipulation. Leaders in white collar schemes do it because they can and enjoy the risk involved. Followers do it because someone is manipulating them or black mailing them into doing it (Collica & Furst 2012 p. 84). Hence, finding out the motive can be a task and an even bigger task to make sure the jury understands beyond a reasonable doubt.

Pillars of the Community

A lot of the time, white collar criminals are white males in suits that are well spoken, appear respectable, give to charities, and even attend church (Iwata 2005). They are not what society has drawn up in their minds as to what a criminal looks like. White collar criminals are usually pillars of the community whom people respect and love (Iwata 2005). The prosecution has to destroy this image and prove that this individual is not as upstanding as society has deemed. Rather he is someone that has built a web to gain something while taking away from society even though society may not feel the effects right away or even be aware that they were hurt (Barnett).

Money Talks

Prosecution is also against the wall because white collar criminals usually have money to hire elite defense attorneys (Iwata 2005). In American society, money talks. If you have it, you can usually wiggle your way out of something; whereas if you do not have it, you must take the best option available to you. With these elite attorneys, they know their way around laws; they know the loopholes. They can easily place doubt in a jury’s mind to make the prosecution’s job of proving beyond a reasonable doubt harder.


The last thing that prosecutors are up against when it comes to white collar crime is the complexity of the cases. White collar criminals are good at covering their tracks. There sometimes is not enough evidence to stick a certain offense to the individual. The other thing is that society does not see white collar crimes as detrimental to society. White collar crimes are not seen as serious crimes that hurt people (Iwata 2005). But in actuality, white collar crimes cost the most even after combining the cost of all street crimes (Collica & Furst 2012 p.82).

The biggest issue with white collar crimes today is making society aware of them. Society has believed in myths about crime for so long: a criminal is a street thug or white collar crimes do not hurt people. Thanks to Edwin Sutherland for bringing attention to white collar crimes, the FBI is working harder to measure this type of crime and bring about awareness on how such crime can really affect society.


Barnett, C. (n.d.). “The Measurement of White-Collar Crime Using Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Data.” U.S. Department of Justice. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division. Retrieved from

Collica, K. & Furst, G. (2012). Crime & society. San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education, Inc.

Iwata, E. (2005). “White-collar crime cases prove difficult to prosecute.” USA Today. Retrieved from

Short Cuts TV (Producer). (2010). Crimes of the Powerful. In Crime and Deviance: A Sociological Inquiry. Retrieved from

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    • ambercita04 profile image

      Amber 4 years ago from Winter Park

      Thank you

    • Darkproxy profile image

      Darkproxy 4 years ago from Ohio

      wow just wow I am impressed?