It has been stated that “. . .the various laws defining white-collar crimes are nothing more than symbolic gestures intended to allay public discontent without threatening the powers that...

It has been stated that “. . .the various laws defining white-collar crimes are nothing more than symbolic gestures intended to allay public discontent without threatening the powers that be.” In this question please discuss the following: (First explain the quote!)

 Has the law’s view of the criminal responsibility of corporations changed over the years? Is it a matter of the law or a matter of enforcement? Is there a difference in how crime in the streets is viewed versus how crime in the suites is viewed? Is there a changing view of crime in the suites? Should it be changing? 

Expert Answers
kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There is no question that white collar crimes historically have been treated differently in the criminal justice system than physically violent “blue collar” crimes, such as murder, rape, burglary, armed robbery, drug trafficking, and many others, the perpetrators of which constitute a large percentage of the nation’s prison population.  While no one can, or should question that white collar crimes have always involved victims, many of whose lives were ruined as a result of the criminal activity at their expense, society historically viewed such crimes as embezzlement and financial fraud differently than it viewed crimes involving violence.  Perpetrators convicted of white collar crimes were far more likely to be imprisoned, if at all, in minimum security prisons or work-release institutions, with the temporary loss of freedom usually accompanied by the seizure of assets and the payment of a fine.  A notable exception to this pattern was Al Capone, a violent leader of Chicago’s organized crime networks who profited handsomely from his activities.  Capone, as many people know, was ultimately brought down by virtue of the government’s ability to prosecute him for tax evasion.  His incarceration in one of the country’s most notorious penal institutions, Alcatraz, was far more symbolic of his reputation for violence than for the gravity of the crime for which he was finally convicted.

White collar criminals have historically been treated differently because, once convicted, they were not viewed as a threat to society in the way violent criminals are viewed.  If the purpose of incarceration is to deny a convicted felon his or her freedom, than it was calculated that minimum security measures would suffice in containing such individuals.  If the purpose of incarceration, however, is punitive in a more base sense, in which the convicted white collar criminal is expected to suffer the physical and psychological indignities associated with the far more dangerous environment inside a medium or maximum security prison, irrespective of the minimal threat he or she poses to society or to other incarcerated prisoners, then white collar criminals should be housed in the far more violent and restrictive prisons where murderers and other violent criminals are housed.  It can be seen as simple common sense both in a punitive and in an economic context, the costs associated with the more security facilities weighing in favor of the less-restrictive environment.

Another element of the equation is the image of the victim of white versus blue collar crime.  The physical wounds associated with violent crimes are more visibly apparent and, consequently, more concrete in how they are viewed.  Victims of white collar crimes may have lost everything, but they are not physically abused and, consequently, are not viewed the same way.  Testimony during a trial or a sentencing hearing from the widow of a murdered man is generally more compelling than the testimony from an individual whose retirement savings were stolen.  It may be unfair, but once again it comes down to perceptions of threat to society.

That said, perceptions of white collar criminals began to change during the 1980s when Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken and others were prosecuted for various financial crimes including insider trading and securities fraud.  These individuals amassed huge fortunes using ethically-questionable and occasionally downright illegal business practices.  Their convictions and imprisonment were highly-visible and their names became synonymous, especially Boesky’s, with white collar crimes committed on a massive scale.  Their crimes and the punishments that followed had a telling effect on how much of the public began to view financial crimes.  The next major financial scandal, in 2001, involved some of the country’s largest and most prestigious accounting firms, especially Arthur Andersen, which were found to be colluding with top executives of major firms, especially energy company Enron, to defraud both the government and investors.  The scale of the Enron scandal was such that public outrage forced Congress to adopt legislative provisions, mainly the “Public Company Accounting Reform and Investor Protection Act” (known popularly as “Sarbanes-Oxley”) designed to radically increase government oversight of the accounting industry, particularly those large firms that worked with major publicly-traded corporations.

While public, and Congressional, anger over white collar crime began to reach its crescendo, however, the fall-out from the 2008 banking crisis reaffirmed that such crimes remained difficult to define and identify.  Many members of the public have criticized the government’s “failure” to prosecute those responsible for this enormous financial crisis.  The problem, however, is that unethical or sometimes simply stupid business practices are not necessarily illegal, and don’t warrant prosecution.  There has to be a determination that the conduct responsible for the crisis is a violation of existing laws.  That, as the public has found out, is not easy, and is not always possible, especially when the public’s elected representatives were instrumental in facilitating the chain of activities that resulted in the financial crisis by, for instance, pressuring lending institutions to make loans that objectively should never have been made.

In conclusion, then, the treatment of white collar crime, while recognized as serious, continues to elude the easy answers associated with most blue collar crime.  Financial crimes can certainly be very serious, but they don’t resonate with the public on a daily basis the way violent crimes resonate.  They are more abstract and more difficult to grasp.  The perpetrators may be vile, amoral thieves, but they wear a suit and tie to work and live in wealthy communities where they patronize the arts and donate large sums to charities.  Their image is vastly different, and less openly threatening, than the gang members covered in violently-themed tattoos and wearing jeans while concealing guns or knives.  We don’t have multiple padlocks on our doors because of Ivan Boesky, or so we think.  The ramifications of white collar crime are little-understood, and their connection to street crime tenuous.  Until that perception changes, they will continue to be treated differently than their lower-income counterparts.