Street Crime and Corporate Crime

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Updated: Mar 14, 2023
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Picture this; Someone is shot cold blood on the street – the media swarms, a man is charged with murder, and he will spend the rest of his life in jail. Some would call that justice. Now, picture this; A corporation knowingly creates a defective product that results in the injury or death of hundreds or thousands of people. There is no media coverage, the corporation is charged with no crime, no one spends any time in jail, and the corporation may only have to pay some fines.

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No justice. The debate between “street crime” and “corporate crime”, and their inequitable consequences, are a product of the unfair privilege and power that wealthy, elite members of society hold over poorer members of society. Elite criminals receive protection from the law for a number of reasons, usually related to power, money, or coercion of the media. The affluent also have access to extremely expensive legal protection and resources in the case of potential consequences. Street criminals, however, do not generally have the means to obtain that same level of legal representation, leaving them considerably disadvantaged within the legal system (Robinson 2015, 75).

This paper looks at research on arrests and incarceration rates for different types of crime, to see how inequalities based on race and class translate into the manner in which these crimes are punished. In this paper, I will present the argument that although corporate crime is overall more damaging and costly to society than street crime, it is overlooked because the corporations committing these offenses are often run by highly privileged individuals (Bonn 2017). Additionally, elites and corporations often own or donate plentiful sums of money to the media and lawmakers to skew results and public perceptions in their favor (Robinson 2015, 96). In a broad sense, this paper will also explore the ways in which capitalism continuously creates a binary that allows the rich and powerful to remain influential and leaves the poor and minority races at a detrimental disadvantage. This paper draws upon concepts discussed in class such as capitalism, racism, and classism. The argument I am presenting is essentially the epitome of how wealth, power, and privilege allow certain individuals to ___

But first, some background information. In the late 1930s, theft and petty crime was basically entirely associated with the poor. Early sociologists believed crime was a result of “feeblemindedness, psychopathic deviations, slum neighborhoods and ‘deteriorated’ families”; it was thought that less than 2 percent of crime came from elite members of society (Lewis 2002, 14). However, this biased thought process was, and remains, completely and utterly incorrect. Throughout history, corporate crime has been a serious issue in The United States, causing an estimated one trillion dollars in economic damage annually (Robinson 2015, 122). Some examples of corporate crime, to name a few, include fraud, embezzlement, bribery, insider trading, investment schemes, securities fraud, and tax evasion (Robinson 2015, 121). Corporate crime can also include violence and even death in the form of faulty/defective product manufacturing, distributing and promoting hazardous products (tobacco, alcohol), and providing unsafe workplace environments (Robinson 2015, 153). The amount of deaths caused by corporate crime each year amounts to the hundreds of thousands range (Reiman 2003).

These crimes may appear less significant than other more “serious” crimes because they do not receive intense attention from the media. The media does not necessarily flock to the scrutiny of corporate crime for a number of reasons. First, it does not spark the same type of “infotainment” interest as a random street crime such as murder, rape, or robbery would (Robinson 2015, 96). In essence, there is no shock value, so the media can’t make as much money reporting on it. Second, the corporations who commit these crimes often pay a lot of money in order to cover it up from public knowledge (Robinson 2015, 97). In a capitalistic society that thrives off of exploitation, it is easy for corporations to become massive multi-billion dollar industries. With unrestricted amounts of money, it is easy to pay for extremely expensive lawyers that will help protect corporations from any legal trouble they may face. The third reason that the media doesn’t surround some of these corporate offenses that cause considerable harm and money to hundreds of thousands of Americans, is because their actions are actually perfectly legal. The term “elite deviance”, coined by David Simon, is used to describe acts committed by elites. Elite deviance encapsulates criminal acts, civil and regulatory violations, and other harmful acts that are committed intentionally and knowingly (Simon 2006). The term deviance rather than crime is a reflection of the fact that many of these acts by elites, though harmful, are legal rather than illegal (Simon 2006). For example, ‘deceptive advertising’ and lying to the public is a perfectly legal offense (Robinson 2015, 119). Provided that the same wealthy, rich, white men who own and operate these deceitful corporations, also help make and vote for laws, it is not very surprising that many of these elitist acts are legal. Given the conservative, pro-business ideology that dominates American politics, it is expected that we do not get tough on corporate and elite offenders.

Crimes referred to as street crime, on the other hand, are shown in a completely different light. Street crime, also known as “serious crime”, refers to illegal acts committed, usually by one individual to another, that in someway harms their life, liberty, or property (Hallsworth 2005, 51). Examples of street crime include assault, murder, rape, and robbery. Drug related criminal activity would also fall under the category of street crime. In comparison to the one trillion dollars of damage corporate crime costs every year, street crimes annual bill amounts to approximately 438 billion dollars (Robinson 2015, 117). Street crime also affects the lives of significantly less people than corporate crime does. With close to one billion people around the world being affected by corporate crime, 22.9 million are affected by street crime annually (Robinson 2015, 121). While street crimes are undoubtedly damaging and violent, they are disproportionately punishable by criminal law than corporate crimes are.

For example, one of the most famous cases of corporate crime involving significant, high level fraud is the “Savings and Loans Scandals.” These scandals began in the 1930s and the “intention” was to help build homes during the Great Depression (Salinger 2013, 828). Originally, according to Jeffrey Reiman, “The system had built into important limitations on the kinds of loans that could be made and was subject to federal supervision to prevent the bank failures that came in wake of the Depression in 1929” (Reiman 2006, 139). At first these loans were working successfully, however, as time went on (approximately in the 1970’s) corporations and the government began making efforts to deregulate the Savings & Loans (Salinger 2013, 829). Why, you may ask, did the federal government decide to deregulate a perfectly fine tuned machine? The answers include the conservative political ideology that came from Ronald Reagan in the 1980s mixed with individual greed and fraud (Robinson 2015, 126). The loosened restraints on the S&L policies allowed room for individual and collective embezzlement, fraud, and deception. So, what, you may ask, was the result of this deregulation and corresponding criminal activity? The answer: the loss of between two hundred billion and 1.4 trillion dollars of the American people (Robinson 2015, 125).

Now your next question may be, what exactly happened to the crooked culprits who accounted for these massive amounts of loss? The answer: pretty much nothing. According to the research of Matthew Robinson and Jeffrey Reiman, the main criminals behind the S&L scandals got off pretty much scott free. For example, Michael Hellerman defrauded virtually sixteen million dollars. He served six years in prison and payed absolutely no fines. Similarly, a man named Charles Bazarian finessed twenty million dollars from two S&L’s. He served less than two years in prison and paid only $18,000 in fines (Robinson 2015, 128). There were many other offenders just like this who stole millions of dollars with very minimal repercussions. This is typical of elite offenders in the United States; causing maximum damage with minimal repercussions.

In contrast to the corporate crime example above, I will now exhibit examples of street crimes and how they were processed in order to emphasize the difference in punishments between the two types of crime. Street crimes are exponentially more punished by the criminal law, especially when it comes to drug related charges. First, in early April of 2013, a forty six year old black man, John Horner, sentenced to 25 years in prison for selling less than two thousand dollars worth of painkillers (Fuchs 2013). Many drug related charges (like John Horner’s) carry mandatory minimum sentences, which force judges to sentence harsh punishments, no matter the circumstance (Fuchs 2013). I believe these mandatory minimum sentences were created in order to specifically target African American males in order to restrain them inside the walls of penitentiaries and outside of society. Another outrageously unfair prison sentence comes from the case surrounding Telisha Watkins in 2003. Watkins received twenty years in prison for arranging a singular cocaine deal for her neighbor. As a struggling black single mother, Watkins was not able to afford sufficient legal protection and is forced to carry out her full sentence (Fuchs 2013). It is stories like these in comparison to lightly punished corporate crimes that make it blatantly obvious that there are sentencing disparities on the basis of race and class.

One reason I believe that street crimes are more punishable, (and more harshly punished by the criminal law), than corporate crimes, is a difference in who commits each crime. Street crimes and corporate crimes tend to produce a different demographic when it comes to offenders. Corporate crimes are disproportionately committed by wealthy, rich, older, white men, and with that criteria, comes a whole lot of privilege. In most societies around the world, including America’s, being a man grants you significant advantages solely on the basis of sex. In a world that thrives off of fundamental subordination of women; it is easier for men to gain economic, political, social, and educational, advantages (Liu 2017, 350). Similarly, being white also grants individuals an enormous upper hand in society. White privilege is the unseen, unconscious advantages that white people obtain, purely on the basis of race (Liu 2017, 350). Finally, wealth grants people tremendous privileges in society and access to resources that most people do not have. Given these advantageous criteria and privileges, it is easier for corporate criminals to get away with their wrong doings.

The media shines a luminous spotlight on the random, violent street crimes that occur sporadically throughout the country. The street crimes reported in the media are most frequently committed in urban, inner city areas that are most often populated by lower class individuals and minority races (Hallsworth 2005). The media is constantly reinforcing the stereotypical trope that poor, black, and brown people are highly violent, aggressive, and dangerous. Minority races are more often portrayed as perpetrators and offenders rather than victims. People of color experience discrimination at every single stage of the criminal and judicial system and are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, and harshly sentenced than white people are (Hallsworth 2005). It is a well established fact in criminology that race, class, and ethnicity affect the chances of one going to prison. In 2005, African American inmates represented an estimated 40 percent of all state and federal prisoners, and Hispanics represented about 20 percent of all state and federal prisons (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2006). Similarly, it is a well established fact in sociology, that due to the unfortunate stigma that surrounds poor, black, and brown people, they are more likely to be profiled as criminals or assumed to be involved in criminal activity. So much so, that we have coined terms such as “racial profiling”, “sentencing disparities”, “driving while black”, “police brutality”, and many more terms that correlate to the well-known unfair treatment that black and brown people receive from the criminal justice system and law enforcement.

In conclusion, we can see that the law is clearly biased in a way that benefits the powerful and further criminalizes the disadvantaged. The law does not define acts that cause the greatest threats to all of American citizens as serious crime and in some situations, they are not considered crimes at all (Robinson 2015, 119). Americans are far more likely to suffer from the deceitful work of corporate criminal behavior, especially through the acts of fraud, than they are to be affected by a random street crime. In fact, fraud causes much more property loss than all street crimes combined, yet it is considered a much “less serious” crime in the United States (Robinson 2015, 95). There is a considerable lack of accountability when it comes to corporate crimes being punished for their actions. However, street criminals, especially when dealing with drug related charges, receive significantly more intense punishment and public scrutiny. These unsettling disparities in sentencing and punishments are because of the racial stigma attached to street crimes and the criminals who are most known to commit them.

The media lends a hand in continuously reinforcing the ideals that street crimes are more serious than corporate crimes by reporting significantly more on street crimes. According to Steven Chermak (1995, 100), “certain kinds of crimes committed against certain kinds of victims are more likely to be featured in the media, especially when they are violent in nature, random, rare, and committed against victims perceived as innocent and vulnerable.” By being in charge of what is reported, the media plays a massive role in constructing the public’s perception of what crime is, who commits crimes, and which types of crime are the most common.

The debate between street crime and corporate crime has existed long throughout history and allows room for wealthy, elitist criminals to continuously stay ahead of the poor and people of color. The criminal justice system, like many other systems in place in America (capitalism, racism, sexism) sanctions inequality and oppression of one group over another. The criminal justice system is smeared with contradiction in which they spend most of their resources pursuing certain street crimes committed by certain individuals, while simultaneously ignoring the acts that actually cause the most overall damage to all of Americans. To this degree, the criminal justice system is highly ineffective in reducing corporate crime, and is unfair to under privileged members of society.

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Street Crime and Corporate Crime. (2021, Jun 26). Retrieved from