Why Are Sentences in White Collar Crimes Cases Often Significantly Less Than for More Traditional Street Crimes?
While white-collar criminal laws are rarely enforced, people in the communities are targeted, over-policed, and often arrested merely for living. Judges and many in the legal system tend to see white-collar criminals - especially Caucasian white-collar criminals - as being good people who made a mistake, while the poor and minorities are more likely to have their crime seen as a reflection of their bad character.
How do judges go about deciding the appropriate penalty for a particular crime? Questions of equal justice are raised in any comparison of common crime and white-collar crime sentencing, but it is not obvious what equality of sentencing means when one is dealing with offenders as diverse as the unemployed alcoholic who habitually steals and forges checks, and the businessman who commits a single, massive stock fraud or price-fixing scheme. The wide range of criminal behavior and the great differences in type of injury caused make such comparisons extremely difficult. The problem is exacerbated by the existence of very different types of sanctions, ranging from fines and a variety of conditions of probation, to various forms of imprisonment, for there is no single underlying metric that provides a standard of comparison. Yet this is precisely the problem that judges face: meting out fair sentences when choosing from a wide array of sanctions applied to a wide range of offenses and offenders. At the level of sentencing policy, the choice among alternative punishments is again an important issue. Should imprisonment be a commonly used sentence for white-collar criminals? A mounting body of theory argues that monetary fines can have a deterrent effect equivalent to that of imprisonment for at least certain classes of offenders, and that since it is less costly for the system (saving money through fines rather than paying it out through costs of confinement) the preferred sanction will nearly always be a fine rather than imprisonment.
White-collar criminals should indeed receive greater penalties for the wrongdoings. Marks (2012) affirms that these are individuals who do not have a moral compass. They are highly deceptive people who will twist and bend the truth in order to achieve selfish gains. Such groups will ignore the real costs of their actions and thus engage in conduct that has adverse consequences on everyone concerned. White collar criminals place more emphasis on their personal needs than their organization’s to the point of downplaying the real costs of their actions. For instance, a lawyer may dishonestly increase the number of billable hours that he did per file. If this same person handles about 70 cases per week, then the organization could lose about $150,000 dollars in revenue. Once the tactic becomes commonplace, then the organization could lose millions in annual returns (Naso, 2012). Aside from the increased losses experienced by such firms, white collar crimes also shortchange clients. Professionals, sellers and business persons will make promises that they cannot deliver and this will render them uncompetitive. For instance, the above lawyer would claim that he has made a court appearance when he has not. Clients will keep wondering why their cases are dragging on and may take their business elsewhere. This type of crime also harms coworkers because someone will get credit for work they have not done. The white-collar criminal may seem more hardworking or diligent than their peers, and this could attract incentives like promotions, salaries or other perks.
In the long run, deterrence, on the other hand, has no role for judgment of an offender's fault or culpability except to the extent that expressing such judgments furthers the deterrent effect of punishment. Deterrence theory, strictly conceived, does not look retrospectively at an offender's conduct for justification; its view is prospective, justifying a sanction as a means to reduce future wrongdoing.
Marks, J. (2012). A matter of ethics: understanding the mind of a white-collar criminal. Financial Executive, November, 31-34. Web.
Naso, R. (2012). When money and morality collide: White collar crime and the paradox of integrity. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 26(2), 241-254. Web.