Crimes of the Middle Classes: White-Collar Offenders in the Federal Courts

Overview

In this major study of convicted white-collar offenders in America, Weisburd, Wheeler, Waring, and Bode show that, contrary to public assumption, the majority of white-collar criminals are not wealthy but come from the middle classes and that judges are not more lenient with these offenders but often punish them more harshly than less socially privileged criminals.
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Overview

In this major study of convicted white-collar offenders in America, Weisburd, Wheeler, Waring, and Bode show that, contrary to public assumption, the majority of white-collar criminals are not wealthy but come from the middle classes and that judges are not more lenient with these offenders but often punish them more harshly than less socially privileged criminals.
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Editorial Reviews

Stuart A. Scheingold
For those of us whose work has focused primarily on street crime, this books provides an instructive look at the world of white collar crime. Its findings feed directly into common assumptions about the differences between the two criminological worlds. These assumptions are capsulized in the title of the Jeffrey Reiman's persuasive polemic which claims that "the rich get richer and the poor get prison." Without putting too fine a point on it, that is pretty much what Weisburd and his asso- ciate's systematic empirical research uncovers. But the reach of this study extends considerably further towards a reinterpre- tation of the concept of white-collar crime. At the heart of the matter is the discovery that the bulk of white collar crime is not, as we are inclined to believe, committed by the affluent and the influential but by rather "ordinary people." I will return to the implications of this finding at the conclusion of the review. CRIMES OF THE MIDDLE CLASSES is based on U.S. federal court data concerning offenders convicted of committing eight white-collar crimes (e.g.: antitrust, mail fraud, embezzlement) and two "common" crimes (postal theft and forgery). Of course, postal theft and forgery are hardly the typical common crimes. Had more typical street crimes, like robbery, burglary, and assault been included, the differentiation between the worlds of common and white collar crime would probably have been still sharper. Research in the federal courts does not, however, permit analysis of street crimes, which are dealt with almost exclusively in state systems. Still, the separation between the worlds of white collar and street crime is striking and it has to do with the kinds of people who commit the crimes and the sen- tences they receive from the criminal justice system. White collar criminals have much more stable employment records, are better educated, have significant assets, and are twice as likely to be white. They are much less likely than common criminals to have a prior criminal record, although "these white collar criminals evidence prior criminality to a much greater extent than most practitioners and scholars would have expected." (p. 66). While thus in many ways normal middle-class Americans, "the most interesting fact about the white-collar offenders' aggregate financial status . . . is the extent of their liabilities. Many of our offenders . . . may barely be holding their financial selves together." (p. 65) In other words, these white collar offenders are middle-class Americans at risk. This finding is of potentially great significance to students of white collar as I shall indicate below. Page 100 follows: The sentencing data reveal that the criminal justice system is harder on common criminals than on white collar offenders despite the fact that sentencing practices are derived from ostensibly equitable legal principles--i.e., the seriousness of the crime, the blameworthiness of the offender, and the effects of the sentence on the offender and others. (p. 133) These principles are, however, weighted in ways that tend to work against common criminals. For white collar criminals, judges tend to emphasize the seriousness of the offense while in sen- tencing common criminals, judges put more emphasis on the offender's background and criminal record. The result is that white collar criminals are less likely to be incarcerated and more likely to escape with fines or probation. Moreover, fines tend be lenient--not just for offenders of moderate means but for many wealthy offenders as well. This research also raises serious questions about the justification commonly given for more lenient sentencing of white collar criminals. They are said to suffer more than common criminals from simply undergoing prosecution. For them, the process truly is supposed to be the punishment, as Malcolm Feeley put it in a different context. But this is not necessarily true, according to Weisburd et al. Common criminals were more likely to lose their jobs or to suffer a loss in social standing and were just about as likely to have health problems following their convictions. The authors acknowledge that these findings are "exploratory at best" (pp. 125-26) and one wonders whether a more typical panel of common criminals would yield the same results. Still, these are the only findings that I know of that shed any empirical light on what has become conventional criminological wisdom. In focusing as I have on the distinctions between common and white collar crime, I have appropriated this research for my own purposes. In its own terms the fundamental objective of the book is to rethink the sources and meaning of white collar crime. The first step in this direction is the discovery that white collar crime is predominately committed by average middle class Ameri- cans. "We believe that ordinary people are committing white collar crime in increasing numbers. One reason is that ordinary people have greater access to the white-collar world of paper fraud." (p. 183) Page 101 follows: This is important because it redirects the focus of white collar crime from the life styles of the rich and famous to average problems and pathologies. The clear inferences is that white collar crime is intrinsic to our emerging service economy where incentive and opportunity intersect. The nation's obsession with achievement and affluence goes back a long way, but these days achievement and affluence are inextricably linked to such things as formal credentials, benefit programs, electronic money transfers, and the availabili- ty of easy credit -- all vulnerable to "paper fraud." According- ly, the major policy lesson drawn by the authors is that the most promising way to decrease white collar crime is to reduce tempta- tion by making it more difficult to accumulate debt thereby reducing "some of the felt pressure that gets converted into criminal fraud." (p. 191) The broader meaning of this recommen- dation is the importance of moving away from socio-economic norms that encourage spending and immediate material gratification. Whatever the practical obstacles to moving in this direction, the understanding of white collar crime significantly broadens the criminological frame of reference.
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