White-Collar Crime: More Local than you Think
When people think of "White-Collar Crime" they think of giant banks, stock markets, Enron, and millions of dollars. While this is not far from the truth, there are smaller forms of white-collar crime that cause huge problems for local communities. One issue routinely discussed in newspapers is the punishment associated with white-collar crimes. Some people wonder why so few white-collar criminals see the inside of a prison, despite the fact that their crimes caused greater social harm to society than many people currently in prison. Still, others note that the same racial disparities that exist in street crimes can be observed when analyzing white-collar offenses. Worse yet, these racial disparities persist throughout the criminal justice process that deals with white-collar offenders. For example, a 2006 article in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology found that race was significantly associated with white-collar offense sentencing. The research specifically found that whites were more likely than blacks to receive lesser sentences, and that this relationship was tied closely to one's ability to pay fines.
Downward departures from sentencing guidelines in white-collar cases is quickly becoming a hot topic for media outlets, especially local cases that can have significant impacts for small communities. For instance, I was recently featured in the Greenwood Index-Journal answering questions about that very topic. Greenwood had sentenced multiple white-collar offenders to pay fines, rather than prison, but allowed payments that would take each offender hundreds of years to pay back. In essence, these men will never see the inside of prison, and will likely never pay back what they fully owe or stole from their community. Many community members responded on social media about the meager sentences. Their comments highlight a debate the society and politicians seem unwilling to have. If they are able to forego prison sentences with the hopes of collecting restitution, then realistic payment schedules should be established and suitable punishments afforded for not sticking to these payment schedules. Likewise, social media comments the need for debate concerning our general philosophy towards dealing with white-collar offenders. If we are not likely to see a great deal of restitution, then should we simply imprison these offenders (retribution)? Why is it that we are more punitive towards drug-users than individuals that steal millions of dollars?
I will not pretend to know the answers to these questions, but I do urge society, citizens and lawmakers alike, to think about the questions I have posed.