Are white collar crimes more acceptable in America?

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Blue-collar crime is a serious problem in the United States, costing the economy roughly $14 billion every year. But white-collar crime – despite the lack of critical attention it receives from the public – impacts even greater damage to the economy, roughly 15 times as much, in fact. It is responsible for an estimated $250 billion to $1 trillion in economic damages every year, with the average company losing more than $9 per day per employee to fraud and abuse. The typical perpetrators are college-educated, white, male managers, with men committing almost 75 percent of white-collar offences.

Lax controls, lack of accountability by companies and a deeply ingrained trust in senior employees means that very often these crimes are overlooked – or at the very least not given the jail time they deserve. Rather, probation and restitution are the outcome of prosecution. Even high-profile celebrities caught drink driving who are then served DUI charges are usually let off the hook, while “commoners” with histories of bad behavior are more often sentenced to six months’ behind bars. Even the seriousness of domestic violence seems to pale in importance when committed by a celebrity or a high profile individual, such as the recent allegations made by Johnny Depp’s wife.

Why is this?

Why do certain individuals seem to be above any kind of law, including but not limited to traffic laws, family law, societal law, amongst other things?

Let’s break things down to better understand the difference between the two types of crime. White-collar crime is defined as an illegal act carried out in connection to work by someone high profile in a professional or clerical occupation, including embezzlement, fraud, or the stealing of office equipment. It includes a variety of nonviolent schemes usually committed in commercial situations where the perpetrator gets financial gain through their victims’ financial loss. The term was coined in 1939 during a presidential address given by Edwin Sutherland, who defined the term as “crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation” – and this association lives on even today. Some of the most widely respected celebrities of today are facing trial for embezzlement, tax evasion, insider trading and forgery, yet their image is nowhere near as tarnished as it would be were they from the lower class and facing trial for assault, sexual harassment or murder.

And, until recently, most white-collar criminality received scant public attention, with perpetrators typically bailed out of jail or successfully defended by one of America’s top attorneys, relieving them of harsh sentences.

According to Alistair Vigier, CEO of ClearWay Law, “In our law firm, we sometimes have to refer our clients to a criminal lawyer when a forensic accountant finds evidence of white collar crime that occurred during a marriage. It is not uncommon for a spouse to hide money from the other. It brings up new issues on the part of the spouse and can slow down the divorce process.”

Blue-collar crime, on the other hand, is any crime committed by an individual from the lower social classes as opposed to someone of a higher social class. It can include personal crimes inspired by immediate reaction to confrontation or other dramatic events, narcotic production or distribution, sexual assault, theft, burglary, assault or murder. Usually, blue-collar crime is for the immediate beneficial gain to the individual or group involved, it directly harms the victim and it often requires the criminal to be present at the “scene of the crime.”

So, are white-collar defendants treated more favorably than other criminals when it comes to sentencing? And is it because they receive less attention by the public than more aggressive crimes?

It is undeniable that blue-collar crimes make better headlines than those relating to underground white-collar schemes. And it makes sense – the idea of gambling, mass murder, drug abuse and robbery are far more exciting to us than corporate tax evasion is, since they appeal to our hedonistic fascination with murder and other morbid crimes. White-collar crimes are, simply put, boring and irrelevant to us and our lives, while blue-collar crimes remind us that passion, anger, revenge and hatred are very much abundant in society.

Is this why such crimes must be “seen to be punished” more severely than those committed inside offices, banks and boardrooms?

Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes was recently accused of raising over $700 million from investors “through an elaborate, years-long fraud in which they exaggerated or made false statements about the company’s technology, business, and financial performance” – yet she received a penalty of just $500,000, relinquished the right to 18.9 million shares of Theranos stock, lost voting control in the company and was banned from serving as a director in a public company for just 10 years. Does that seem fair?

There was also the 2013 case of Michael E. Peppel, former chairman and chief executive of MCSi, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy, money laundering and filing false documents with the Securities and Exchange Commission. During the trial, the judge overseeing his case took into account the many letters of support he had gathered for his own defense, handing him a mere seven-day prison sentence because he was “a remarkably good man.”

In comparison, American blue-collar worker Darron Bennalford Anderson received a prison sentence of 11,250 years for being convicted of the robbery, kidnap and rape of an elderly woman in 1993. Now, this is not to say one crime is worse than the other but with a bigger wad of cash, a more prestigious reputation and access to a better attorney, Darron might just have had that sentence reduced to a century or two.

Some argue the punishment for non-violent, white-collar crime is too harsh, while others believe that too often high-profile criminals evade punishment simply because they can afford to. White collar criminals often retain their prestige, their social standing in society, while blue collar criminals are excluded – deemed failures of society – untrustworthy and people feel extremely uncomfortable around them.

We need to stop and decide if it is acceptable that simply because white collar criminals have a safety barrier of anonymity, access to expensive legal representation that street criminals cannot access, and a better social reputation, they should be less vulnerable than their blue-collar counterparts in the American legal system. A crime is a crime, is it not?

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