White Collar Crime in Criminology and Criminal Justice Literature

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A summary of “White Collar Crime Representation in the Criminological Literature Revisited, 2001-2010” (by Danielle McGurrin, Melissa Jarrell, Amber Jahn, and Brandy Cochrane)

For nearly 25 years, white collar crime (WCC) researchers have empirically demonstrated that white collar crime and deviance are under-represented in the criminology and criminal justice literature relative to traditional street crimes. A collaborative study led by Danielle McGurrin of Portland State University follows up on a 2004 content analysis by Lynch, McGurrin, and Fenwick which found that white collar crimes were sparsely covered relative to conventional street crimes in criminology and criminal justice journals, textbooks, and doctoral programs. This new study, finalized in 2013, attempts to re-measure the imbalance of subject matter in the criminology and criminal justice literature over the course of a decade (2001-2010).

Why does this imbalance exist?

Despite overwhelming data demonstrating the greater loss of life, higher injuries and illnesses, and larger economic losses caused by white collar crimes, the disciplines of criminology and criminal justice have historically focused their research sights to a far greater degree on conventional crimes resulting in a sizeable imbalance between white collar and traditional crime representation in the criminological literature. How crimes are defined, as well as data availability, data access, and resource allocation are essential for understanding which topics receive criminological attention and which topics are marginalized in the discipline. With respect to criminal and civil law making, white collar harms are defined under a vast assortment of constitutional, executive, administrative/regulatory, case, federal, and state criminal law. Both the enormity and complexity of white collar offenses require law enforcement efforts that extend well beyond traditional federal, state, and municipal policing capacities. Regarding governmental data collection, in the United States, only a small number of less serious (Index II) white collar crimes are recorded annually by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) Program. Instead, most white collar offense data are either collected by regulatory agencies (e.g. EPA, OSHA, FDA, etc.) or independent non-profit research organizations.

The lack of systematic governmental data collection on white collar crime not only challenges research efforts, but can hinder effective public policy making involving human and environmental health and safety. For example, in the United States, air, land, and water pollution kill hundreds of thousands of people each year. In hospitals and medical clinics, hundreds of thousands of patients die each year due to preventable medical errors. In the workplace, tens of thousands of workers die each year from occupational diseases, and tens of thousands more die annually each year from defective or unsafe consumer products. Yet, despite the enormous physical costs of white collar offenses (particularly those committed in a corporate context), most of the law violating behaviors that result in serious harms are not legally codified as criminal. Perhaps not surprisingly, less than two percent of persons incarcerated in the U.S. are serving sentences for white collar crimes.

Whether resulting in physical harms like those noted above, or financial harms, white collar crime victims are often unaware of their victimization as such, and infrequently report the crimes committed against them to traditional law enforcement or regulatory agencies. Even in extreme cases of white collar criminal victimization (e.g. the massive subprime mortgage frauds committed in the finance and insurance industry that triggered the near financial collapse in 2008), the magnitude, complexity, and politicization of the acts and actors greatly challenge victim responses as well as legal redresses. In sum, from organizational offenses like corporate and governmental crimes to individual-level offenses like occupational and cybercrimes, the characteristics of white collar law violations and harms create unique challenges for victims, criminal and civil justice responses, and academics that are often distinct from those of conventional street crimes.

How does this manifest as a disparity in criminology and criminal justice research and teaching?

White collar crime often includes business, industrial, environmental, or financial disciplines that fall outside of the normal confines of criminal justice study. Traditional research practices are more narrowly focused on the roots of criminology as we understand it from social, governmental, and cultural perspectives.

Even though the U.S. has seen white collar crime increase in the 2000’s, McGurrin’s team suspected that representation would remain low in criminology and criminal justice textbooks, journals, and doctoral programs throughout the remainder of the decade.

How was the study conducted?

Fifteen leading criminology and criminal justice journals, 13 introductory textbooks, and all criminology and criminal justice doctoral programs in the United States were examined to find white collar crime content (and in journals and textbooks, to compare this coverage with that of non-white collar crimes). For the purposes of this study, the types of non-white collar crime data were defined and coded as:

  • Criminal law violations: index crimes, domestic violence/intimate partner violence, hate crimes, terrorism, international-crimes-non-white collar, and cybercrimes-non-white collar
  • Criminal lifestyles: drugs, DUI/DWI, guns, gangs
  • Demographics: race/ethnicity, gender, and age
  • Representation/perception of crime: depictions and viewpoints of crime and justice
  • Criminal justice system/administration: policing, courts, and corrections
  • Researching criminal behavior: (theory, methods, statistical analysis).

White collar crime data were defined and coded as:

  • Corporate: illegal and harmful acts committed by corporate officers or employees to promote corporate and personal interests
  • Enterprise/contrepreneurial: cooperative syndicated and business activities, as well as hybrid crimes that merge traditional professional crime and entrepreneurial activities
  • Governmental /state-corporate: activities committed on behalf of governments or by government officials, as well as white collar crimes committed in collusion with a corporate or organizational entity
  • Occupational: Illegal and unethical activity committed in the course of conducting an occupation
  • White collar crime theory: Articles advancing or testing specific theories.

What findings were uncovered?

The findings were remarkably consistent with those of previous studies. Little had changed in the disparity of attention to white collar crime in criminology and criminal justice literature despite ongoing research and calls for change. Highlights of the study are as follows:

  • Of 4,878 articles examined in 15 leading criminology and criminal justice journals, only 289 (6.3%) focused on white collar crime.
  • Of 5,953 pages examined in 13 top-ranked introductory-level CCJ textbooks, only 340 (5.7%) addressed white collar crime.
  • Of 38 CCJ doctoral degree programs examined, only 16 (42%) offered a course on white collar crime.
  • And only one program requires a white collar crime course for one of its three academic tracks in the doctoral curriculum.

What policy changes were recommended?

Whether one examines the criminalization of white collar offenses, the allocation of resources for its enforcement , the prosecution of white collar crimes , the sentencing of white collar offenders, or the representation of white collar crimes in the criminological literature, the results are almost uniformly the same: white collar crimes are not treated as seriously as traditional street crimes. To help remedy the latter, the study’s authors recommend the following:

Criminology and criminal justice journals can more frequently call for “special issues” on white collar crime; editors of CCJ journals can more routinely integrate WCC scholarship by examining the distribution and topical areas of coverage to ensure that core areas of the discipline are being adequately represented. For white collar crime researchers, a dedicated white collar crime journal can advance WCC scholarship in a more targeted and recognizable publication forum. And to authors and editors—both can work toward the goal of increased white collar crime scholarship in mainstream journals, particularly top-tier CCJ journals. For textbook authors, editors, and publishers, greater exposure to white collar crime at the undergraduate (and graduate) levels would likely increase the number of students interested in studying and researching white collar crime at the doctoral level. And for CCJ doctoral chairs and curriculum committees, increasing the growth of white collar crime course offerings– including requiring a white collar crime course–  could better prepare future white collar crime scholars. Collectively, even modest increases in the areas above could markedly improve current white collar crime representation in all core areas of the criminology and criminal justice disciplines.

To read more about Dr. Danielle McGurrin and to see a list of the CCJO courses that she teaches, please view her bio here.