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Health, Sports & Psychology

Punishment and corporate crime

Updated Wednesday, 4th November 2009

Part of the task of critical criminology is to question how powerful groups operate in society and are treated by the state, in contrast to those who are less powerful.

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When we look at the problem of corporate crime and its treatment, we find that corporate crimes are less frequently prosecuted, in spite of the fact that the harm caused to society by corporate crime far outstrips the damage caused by street crime.

Some of the harms associated with corporate crime include: corporate fraud, environmental harm, occupational hazards, contaminated foods, hazardous consumer products, medical/pharmaceutical malpractice.

Even when criminal charges are laid and criminal responsibility is proven, the sanctions used against corporations differ starkly from those applied when street crimes occur. Corporate crimes are generally dealt with through fines and it is seldom that individuals receive any form of criminal justice sanction.

Put simply, the poor get prison, whilst the rich pay their way out of trouble and carry on virtually as before. This imbalance in the workings of the criminal justice system suggests that 'serving justice' is defined differently depending on whether the perpetrator of a particular crime is rich or poor, or the harm caused is a social or an interpersonal one.

Custody unit cell door, Waterloo Police Station Creative commons image Icon J D Mack under CC-BY-ND licence under Creative-Commons license

Arguments against imprisoning perpetrators of corporate crime are sometimes made based on the supposed inappropriateness of this sanction for individuals who were otherwise leading useful lives (e.g. were employed or held powerful positions) – why submit them to the stigma and hardship of a prison sentence? What good will it do?

This argument calls into question the way imprisonment is viewed as a sanction. Why is it an appropriate form of punishment for the powerless, but not for the powerful? What good does it do the less powerful perpetrator of street crime? Rather than arguing that perpetrators of corporate crime should not escape 'justice' and be sent to prison, what if we asked – what might we learn by diverting perpetrators of street crime away from prison, as we do with white-collar crimes?





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