Why White Collar Crime Studies are Essential for the Criminology and Criminal Justice Major


The following article is written by a Portland State University CCJ Associate Professor, Dr. Danielle McGurrin.

Whenever I meet my students on the first day of class, I always survey their general knowledge and perspectives on crime and justice before connecting their responses to the given course topic.

  • What is a crime?
  • How is crime distinct from the concept of harm?
  • What kinds of offenses do students believe cause the most damage to our society and why?
  • What do we know about the lives and experiences of persons or organizations who commit particular crime types as offenders?
  • In what ways do persons or organizations experience crime victimization?
  • What are the criminal justice and legal system responses to these offenses/offenders/victims?

In my white collar crime (WCC)[i] course, this unpacking of crime types, offending, victimization, and CJ/legal responses helps me frame for students both comparative analyses of white collar and conventional crimes as well as why this subject matter is so essential to their criminology and criminal justice education. White collar crimes are both physical and economic in their impact.

How White Collar Crime Impacts Physical Health

White collar crimes cause more deaths, illnesses, and injuries as well as greater economic losses than all street crimes combined. Stated more artfully by sociologist, Stuart Henry, “white collar crime is more harmful, to more people, and more frequently, than its conventional counterpart” (i.e. individual crimes against persons and property).

The myth that white collar crimes are largely non-violent is dispelled when we include not only the intent of the offending behavior or actions—but the harmful effects caused by the commission of these offenses. Think of factors like:

  • Deaths to which illegal air, land, and water emissions contribute
  • Patient deaths caused by medical errors in hospitals and clinics
  • Occupational injuries that lead to worker fatalities
  • Defective or unsafe products that result in consumer deaths

By comparison, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports estimates 15,696 persons were victims of homicide in 2015. For further empirical evidence on white collar crime victimization and a comparison of conventional and white collar crimes, see my co-authored article, White Collar Crime in the Criminological Literature Revisited.

White Collar Crime at an Economic Level

There is also a relationship between white collar crime and economic losses. In 2015, the FBI estimated an economic loss of $14.3 billion dollars resulting from property crime. By contrast, looking only at crimes in the financial industry, the FBI estimates in its most recent Financial Crimes Report to the Public that finance crimes– including corporate, securities and commodities, financial institution, mortgage, health care, insurance, and mass marketing frauds– cause hundreds of billions of dollars in losses each year, nationwide.

Importantly, these economic damages are not confined to the boundaries of our national borders. Criminologist, Greg Barak, underscores this point in Theft of a Nation-Wall Street Looting and Federal Regulatory Colluding – a survey of the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis that triggered the near economic meltdown in 2008-2009. Barak summarizes the domestic and global economic victimization impacts when he reports that:

globally, [the] Wall Street debacle accounted for more than $20 trillion in lost wealth….cost nearly 20 million workers their jobs worldwide…domestically, cost taxpayers $700 billion in Troubled Asset Relief Program bailout funds…. and between 2007 and the end of 2012, cost close to four million American households their homes [due] to mortgage foreclosures. (pp. 7, 13).

Why Understanding White Collar Crime is Important for CCJ Students

Collectively, the breadth and depth of physical, financial, and economic harms caused by white collar crimes is immense. Yet, despite this, white collar crimes remain under-enforced. Whether measuring the criminalization of white collar crime offenses, the allocation of resources for its enforcement, the prosecution of white collar crime offenses, the sentencing of white collar crime offenders, or the representation of white collar crime in the criminological literature and in typical criminal justice programs, the results are almost uniformly the same: white collar crimes are not treated as seriously as traditional street crimes.

The good news is that criminology and criminal justice (CCJ) students can reverse these trends by studying, researching, and pursuing careers aimed at curbing white collar crimes. While the mechanisms by which white collar
offenders commit their offenses may be complex, the motivations for economic gain, power, and status are not. In the final analysis, combating white collar crime is largely about making organizations and individuals play fair. As such, fair play requires a commitment from our dominant institutions to ensure lawfulness, honesty, transparency, and accountability in the marketplace.

To help achieve these goals, organizations and individuals need CCJ and industry expertise to communicate the economic and physical harms that result from foul play and how to avoid mal-/mis-/nonfeasance in the workplace. White collar crime students can play a critical role informing and influencing organizational culture and practices. Similarly, WCC students can help shape public policies on topics as diverse as our environment, worker safety and health, food security and safety, finance, technology and trade, domestic/foreign policy, globalization, and human rights, among many others.

In addition to influencing policy-making and practices, CCJ students bring with them a criminological understanding that could help governmental organizations and corporations more effectively prevent, intervene, and respond to unlawful and harmful practices. To this end, students should study and practice how to research and properly investigate criminal, civil, and regulatory law violations and misconduct. These skills will strengthen students’ understanding of the value, purpose, and practice of incorporating a justice-related approach with law violations and injurious behaviors.

In sum, through their education and training, CCJ students learn to appreciate the importance of “carrots and sticks” for producing a more balanced, impartial, and effective criminal justice response. With these knowledge and skills, CCJ students can help improve the overall safety, security, productivity, health, and wellness of business and governmental organizations for the betterment of their local and broader communities.

[i] Coined by Edwin Sutherland in his 1939 American Sociological Address and later revised by contemporary white collar crime scholars Helmkamp, Ball, and Townsend in 1996, white collar crime represents “illegal or unethical acts that violate fiduciary responsibility of public trust committed by an individual or organization, usually during the course of legitimate occupational activity, by persons of high or respectable social status for personal or organizational gain.”

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[1] http://www.westerncriminology.org/documents/WCR/v14n2/McGurrin.pdf
[2] https://www.fbi.gov/file-repository/stats-services-publications-financial-crimes-report-2010-2011-financial-crimes-report-2010-2011.pdf/view
[3] http://www.greggbarak.com/slide_show.html