Geis, Sutherland, and the Development of White-collar Crime

Part 2 of 2

By Robert F. Meier, Ph.D

The following article, continued from the September/October issue of The White Paper, is excerpted from "Contemporary Issues in Crime & Criminal Justice: Essays in Honor of Gilbert Geis," edited by Henry N. Pontell and David Shichor. The book, published this year by Prentice Hall, was assembled in honor of Dr. Geis on his 75th birthday. Dr. Geis is the longtime president of the Association. - ed. 

Edwin Sutherland came to the field of white-collar crime from a strong interest in conventional criminality. And for most of his work on street crime, he studied the behavior of individual criminals. Some of those criminals, such as those reflected in his data on corporate crime, acted in concert with others, while other criminals acted alone. But Sutherland never strayed far from the integrity of his subject matter within the following context.

Crime is an act defined as illegal by law. Sutherland never wavered from his strong belief that white-collar crime was technically, and in all other ways, crime. The simple idea that white-collar crime is indeed crime led to one of the most well-known debates in criminology, the Sutherland-Tappan debates. Criminologist Paul Tappan, a legally trained sociologist, took exception to Sutherland's contention that white-collar crimes were criminal acts. They were, Tappan argues, after all, not in most cases handled by the police, criminal prosecutors, or criminal courts, but in administrative courts with different procedures, legal rulings, and sanctions. White-collar crime was not criminal in either a technical or social sense, Tappan implied, and to argue that it was would merely promote a political agenda.

Tappan's legal training undoubtedly shaped a narrower, more technical view, and his position was hardly outrageous. There can be a substantial difference between the formulation and enforcement of criminal codes and the formulation and enforcement of other state-defined rules. But Tappan's restricted view of crime assumes that the differences between white-collar crime and conventional crime are not related to the power and influence of the offenders, important characteristics of white-collar crime.

Gilbert Geis, too, regards white-collar crime as real crime. White-collar crime is not a legal sleight-of-hand. Like Sutherland, Geis has understood well that in many cases the criminal law was not the initial point of reference because white-collar crimes were often found in the violations of administrative law. Yet, the violations of the rules of state agencies were backed by state sanctions, just as in street crime in which the offender breaks the rules (criminal law) of state agencies (legislatures) that are backed by state sanctions (e.g., imprisonment). In fact, aside from incarceration, the sanctions of most white-collar crimes are virtually identical to the sanctions of criminal laws.








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