This text was adapted by The Saylor Foundation under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 0 License without attribution as requested by the work’s original creator or licensee. Preface



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Property Crime


As noted earlier, the major property crimes are burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft, and arson. These crimes are quite common in the United States and other nations and, as Table 8.1 "Number of Crimes: Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) and National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), 2010" indicated, millions occur annually in this country. Many Americans have installed burglar alarms and other security measures in their homes and similar devices in their cars and SUVs. While property crime by definition does not involve physical harm, it still makes us concerned, in part because it touches so many of us. Although property crime has in fact declined along with violent crime since the early 1990s, it still is considered a major component of the crime problem, because it is so common and produces losses of billions of dollars annually.

Much property crime can be understood in terms of the roles and social networks of property criminals. In this regard, many scholars distinguish between amateur theft and professional theft. Most property offenders are amateur offenders: They are young and unskilled in the ways of crime, and the amount they gain from any single theft is relatively small. They also do not plan their crimes and instead commit them when they see an opportunity for quick illegal gain. In contrast, professional property offenders tend to be older and quite skilled in the ways of crime, and the amount they gain from any single theft is relatively large. Not surprisingly, they often plan their crimes well in advance. The so-called cat burglar, someone who scales tall buildings to steal jewels, expensive artwork, or large sums of money, is perhaps the prototypical example of the professional property criminals. Many professional thieves learn how to do their crimes from other professional thieves, and in this sense they are mentored by the latter just as students are mentored by professors, and young workers by older workers.


White-Collar Crime


If you were asked to picture a criminal in your mind, what image would you be likely to think of first: a scruffy young male with a scowl or sneer on his face, or a handsome, middle-aged man dressed in a three-piece business suit? No doubt the former image would come to mind first, if only because violent crime and property crime dominate newspaper headlines and television newscasts and because many of us have been victims of violent or property crime. Yet white-collar crime is arguably much more harmful than street crime, both in terms of economic loss and of physical injury, illness, and even death.

What exactly is white-collar crime? The most famous definition comes from Edwin Sutherland (1949, p. 9), [6] a sociologist who coined the term in the 1940s and defined it as “a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation.” Sutherland examined the behavior of the seventy largest US corporations and found that they had violated the law hundreds of times among them. Several had engaged in crimes during either World War I or II; they provided defective weapons and spoiled food to US troops and even sold weapons to Germany and other nations the United States was fighting.

Although white-collar crime as studied today includes auto shop repair fraud and employee theft by cashiers, bookkeepers, and other employees of relatively low status, most research follows Sutherland’s definition in focusing on crime committed by people of “respectability and high social status.” Thus much of the study of white-collar crime today focuses on fraud by physicians, attorneys, and other professionals and on illegal behavior by executives of corporations designed to protect or improve corporate profits (corporate crime).

In the study of professional fraud, health-care fraud stands out for its extent and cost (Rosoff, Pontell, & Tillman, 2010). [7] Health-care fraud is thought to amount to more than $100 billion per year, compared to less than $20 billion for all property crime combined. For example, some physicians bill Medicare and private insurance for services that patients do not really need and may never receive. Medical supply companies sometimes furnish substandard equipment. To compensate for the economic loss it incurs, health-care fraud drives up medical expenses and insurance costs. In this sense, it steals from the public even though no one ever breaks into your house or robs you at gunpoint.

Although health-care and other professional fraud are serious, corporate crime dwarfs all other forms of white-collar crime in the economic loss it incurs and in the death, injury, and illness it causes. Corporate financial crime involves such activities as fraud, price fixing, and false advertising. The Enron scandal in 2001 involved an energy corporation whose chief executives exaggerated profits. After their fraud and Enron’s more dire financial state were finally revealed, the company’s stock plummeted and it finally went bankrupt. Its thousands of workers lost their jobs and pensions, and investors in its stock lost billions of dollars. Several other major corporations engaged in (or strongly suspected of doing so) accounting fraud during the late 1990s and early 2000s, but Enron was merely the most notorious example of widespread scandal that marked this period.

While corporate financial crime and corruption have cost the nation untold billions of dollars in this and earlier decades, corporate violence—actions by corporations that kill or maim people or leave them ill—is even more scandalous. The victims of corporate violence include corporate employees, consumers of corporate goods, and the public as a whole. Annual deaths from corporate violence exceed the number of deaths from homicide, and illness and injury from corporate violence affect an untold number of people every year.

Employees of corporations suffer from unsafe workplaces in which workers are exposed to hazardous conditions and chemicals because their companies fail to take adequate measures to reduce or eliminate this exposure. Such exposure may result in illness, and exposure over many years can result in death. According to a recent estimate, more than 50,000 people die each year from workplace exposure (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations [AFL-CIO], 2010), [8] a figure about three times greater than the number of annual homicides. About 1,500 coal miners die each year from black lung disease, which results from the breathing of coal dust; many and perhaps most of these deaths would be preventable if coal mining companies took adequate safety measures (G. Harris, 1998). [9] In another example, the asbestos industry learned during the 1930s that exposure to asbestos could cause fatal lung disease and cancer. Despite this knowledge, asbestos companies hid evidence of this hazard for more than three decades: They allowed their workers to continue to work with asbestos and marketed asbestos as a fire retardant that was widely installed in schools and other buildings. More than 200,000 asbestos workers and members of the public either have already died or are expected to die from asbestos exposure; most or all of these deaths could have been prevented if the asbestos industry had acted responsibly when it first discovered it was manufacturing a dangerous product (Lilienfeld, 1991). [10]

Unsafe products also kill or maim consumers. One of the most notorious examples of deaths from an unsafe product involved the Ford Pinto, a car first sold in the early 1970s that was vulnerable to fire and explosion when hit from behind in a minor rear-end collision (Cullen, Maakestad, & Cavender, 2006). [11]Ford knew before the Pinto went on the market that its gas tank was unusually vulnerable in a rear-end collision and determined it would take about $11 per car to fix the problem. It then did a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether it would cost more to fix the problem or instead to settle lawsuits after Pinto drivers and passengers died or were burned and injured in rear-end collisions. This analysis indicated that Ford would save about $87 million if it did not fix the problem and instead paid out compensation after Pinto drivers and passengers died or got burned. Because Ford made this decision, about five hundred people eventually died in Pinto rear-end collisions and many others were burned.

The toll of white-collar crime, both financial and violent, is difficult to estimate, but by all accounts it exceeds the economic loss and death and injury from all street crime combined. White-collar crime is thought to involve an annual economic loss of more than $700 billion annually from corporate fraud, professional fraud, employee theft, and tax evasion and an annual toll of at least 100,000 deaths from workplace-related illness or injury, unsafe products, and preventable environmental pollution. These figures compare to an economic loss of less than $20 billion from property crime and a death toll of about 17,000 from homicide (Barkan, 2012). [12] By any measure, the toll of white-collar crime dwarfs the toll of street crime, even though the latter worries us much more than white-collar crime. Despite the harm that white-collar crime causes, the typical corporate criminal receives much more lenient punishment, if any, than the typical street criminal (Rosoff et al., 2010). [13]


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