Many criminological theories often struggle with explaining why people of status commit crimes when, seemingly, they do not need to. There are several schools of thought on this. The Chicago School and The Bell Curve theories support the idea that crimes are committed by those who live in run down areas who are generally poor. These individuals tend to have a low IQ. These theories clearly do not support why high status individuals commit offences.
Classic criminological theories date back to the 1700s, specifically the work of Cesare Beccarias On Crimes and Punishments (1764). Firstly, he states that crime occurs when the benefits outweigh the costs and secondly, when people pursue self-interest in the absence of effective punishments. Although this is very early on in the development of criminological theories, there are clearly aspects of Beccarias theory that may help to explain why all people, including the powerful, commit crimes. Therefore, it can be cogently argued that a person of status and in a position of power is tempted to commit serious offences of dishonesty because the reward is great and often outweighs the cost, potential punishment and the diminished possibility of being caught.
However, in recent years, Law enforcement agencies and the courts have changed. There is more energy in prosecuting these offenders because of the true impact of their crimes on society. For example the Ponzi fraud scheme or the case of Michael Milken who paid $650 million in court-ordered restitution before he was even sentenced is a good illustration of the changing attitude towards these types of crimes. This in itself continues to beg the question, why do they do it when they have so much to lose? It appears that the two aforementioned points from Beccarias work do in fact fail to explain the causes or suggest the prevention of these offences, however, he does assert that crime is a free-willed choice of the party committing the offence, which is relevant to any person committing a crime, including powerful individuals.
Beccaria also supported the notion of rational punishment, whereby the punishment should be proportionate to the offence committed, whilst being served promptly and effectively. He believed this would be an appropriate deterrent to anyone who thinks about committing a crime or reoffending (known as recidivism). Although this seems fairly rudimentary and conservative, one must bear in mind that these powerful individuals are usually intellectual people who have spent years working to achieve such a status. Consequently, it can be argued that they would not need extreme punishment in order to deter these types of offences being committed and therefore as long as there is an expectation of punishment, (often a custodial sentence) that should be enough to prevent the majority from committing these offences. On the other hand, it could be submitted that rich and powerful people may sometimes have an attitude of being above the law and untouchable. Therefore, a harsher punishment with aims of exemplifying the criminals behaviour as unacceptable may be more effective as a deterrent to others. In summary, it may be said that a mixture of more robust law enforcement policies, harsher punishments by the court and the announcement of crime (irrespective of the status of the offender) does not pay, may reduce recidivism.
Edwin Sutherland has long been regarded as a criminological theorist determined to understand white-collar crime, why individuals commit this crime, and the impact these crimes have on the community as a whole. Simply, Sutherland knew that other criminological theories, namely that criminals come from broken homes in impoverished areas, would not stack up when attempting to understand the conundrum of white-collar crime. He noted that many of the law breakers in business were far from poor, but were from happy family backgrounds and all mentally sound. Sutherland makes interesting points in his work, one of which emphasises how moral and ethical codes can become lost in grey areas where the boundaries of right and wrong become hard to distinguish. For example, he explains that these crimes can be justified by others and be categorised as good business ethics, which appears to take the malice out of the act. Yet, regardless of how you try to dress-up or play-down these acts, they are in fact criminal offences and they are not victimless crimes. Furthermore, Sutherland stresses the impact that these crimes have on society as a whole, which according to his research, is large-scale anger and discontent with not only the offender, but at authorities in general who seemingly have failed to prevent these methodical crimes.
The fact surely must be that persons in positions of power have more opportunity (through social status, better education) to commit high value crime with little realistic prospect of being caught and genuinely (but foolishly) believe that there are no victims to their crimes. This mind-set creates a perfect incentive to commit offences by high status individuals.
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