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Crimes of the powerful
Crimes of the powerful

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Defining crimes of the powerful

Critical criminologists have endeavoured to broaden the narrow frame within which crime is often defined and considered, which has focused heavily on street, property, or ‘stranger’ crimes. Strands of critical criminology have sought to examine crimes and harms perpetrated not by the most disadvantaged in society but by those who hold significant social, economic or political power. These ‘crimes of the powerful’ encompass a range of criminal or harmful activities. They may be perpetrated by whole corporations and corporate elites or state bodies and state representatives. Within the broad category of crimes of the powerful some critical criminologists would also include ‘family violence’, which may be founded on, for example, patriarchal ideological assumptions, and ‘hate crimes’, which may be founded on, for example, racist or homophobic ideological assumptions.

Crimes of the powerful

White-collar crime

Any criminal offence committed by a person of relatively high status or who holds relatively high levels of trust where the offence is made possible by their legitimate employment. Examples include: fraud, embezzlement, tax violations, workplace theft.

Corporate crime

Illegal acts or omissions that are the result of deliberate decision making or culpable negligence within a legitimate formal organisation. Examples include: financial crimes, crimes against consumers, crimes associated with employment relationships (including those related to employee safety), crimes against the environment.

State crime

Forms of criminality that are committed by states and governments in order to further a variety of domestic and foreign policies. State crime can be seen as falling into four main categories (McLaughlin, 2001, p. 290)

  • political criminality, including: corruption, intimidation, censorship
  • criminality associated with security and police forces, including: warmaking, genocide, ethnic cleansing, torture, terrorism
  • criminality associated with economic activities, including: monopolisation practices, health and safety violations, illegal collaboration with multinational corporations
  • criminality at cultural and societal levels, including: material immiseration of sections of the community, institutional racism, cultural vandalism.

Family violence

Forms of physical or mental violence in the life cycle of family members: it can include physical abuse and neglect of children, partner domestic violence, or elder abuse. Although family violence is in some ways a different order of violence than other crimes of the powerful, it is included here because its examination requires consideration of the way social structure and convention can hide or legitimate serious harms against human and social lives.

Hate crimes

A criminal act that is motivated by hatred, bias or prejudice against a person or property based on the actual or perceived race, ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual orientation of the victim.

Key theorists

Key theorists who have conducted research or written about crimes of the powerful include: Stanley Cohen; Hazel Croall; Frank Pearce; Edwin Sutherland; Steve Tombs; Dave Whyte

(Source: adapted from Mclaughlin, E. and Muncie, J. (eds), 2001)