Victims of Corporate Crime Research Paper

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While the much heralded “rediscovery of the victim” in the latter part of the twentieth century exposed the previously hidden victimization associated with violence against women and minority ethnic groups, it did not extend its gaze to the victims of corporate crime (Croall 2007, 2010; Whyte 2007). Yet this form of crime has a huge impact, encompassing for example, the mass deaths, injuries, illnesses and long term health dangers associated with corporate neglect of safety, health and environmental considerations and the enormous financial losses suffered by individual victims, the general public and, very often, the least affluent.

This contribution will explore the factors underlying this neglect including the extent to which corporate crime victimization fails to “fit” the constructions of crime and victimization prevalent in criminology and criminal justice. It will look at issues of research before outlining the potential scope of victimization and providing selected, contemporary, examples. It will outline the relationship between victimization and structural inequalities and at the relatively limited role of criminal justice before considering alternative strategies within and beyond criminal justice.

Constructing Corporate Crime Victimization

The relative invisibility of corporate victims is strongly related to the widely acknowledged ambiguous criminal status of corporate, along with white collar, crime and to the very different nature of victimization. In very general terms, crime and criminal victimization are constructed around individual offenders and victims, an immediate event involving intentional direct physical and economic harm, often, if not always, accompanied by interpersonal contact. Corporate offences very often lack individual “bleeding” victims and involve an impersonal company with no intent to harm specific offenders. There may be no “event,” rather a series of offences building up over time (Tombs and Whyte 2010), and, as Sutherland (1949), in his classic work on white collar crime recognized, many, such as consumer crime, have a “rippling effect,” causing a small loss to a large number of victims, but yielding large profits. Moreover, many offences are not widely perceived as “crime” or those harmed as “crime victims,” raising important issues of what activities to include.

The absence of intent, in legal terms, (mens rea), and an individual, guilty offender, gave rise, during the era of public welfare legislation in the nineteenth century, to the development of what is known as regulatory law. In general terms this involves the enforcement, by a vast range of agencies, of regulations covering a very wide range of corporate activities including compliance with financial, health and safety, environmental and consumer legislation. Agencies have the power to criminally prosecute, although such prosecutions are rare and penalties often perceived as lenient (Croall 2004). This effectively creates a distinction between “real” and “quasi” crimes, which, to critical criminologists, reflects the way in which corporations have been able to influence the criminalization of their harmful acts.

From Sutherland onwards debates have raged over whether criminologists should include these activities, along with other harmful acts not subject to criminal penalties, as “crime.” Some critical criminologists, arguing against an acceptance of state definitions of crime suggest using an alternative concept of “harm” (Hillyard and Tombs 2004), while others advocate using the concept of “deviance” rather than crime, which incorporates notions of a reaction by a respected audience and the imposition of sanctions, be they criminal, administrative or less formal forms of censure and reputational damage (Green and Ward 2000). It could be argued therefore that it is reasonable to include, in the category of corporate crime, corporate activities, such as financial fraud, which are unambiguously “real crime,” “regulatory” crime as outlined above, activities which are “illegal but not criminal,” such as some restrictive trade practices or misleading advertising, and those which are widely recognized as “lawful but awful” (Passas 2005), such as tax avoidance or the continued production of unhealthy food and other consumer products.

Like crime, the construction of criminal victimization is also based on conventional and state definitions of crime, with critical victimology stressing the importance of looking at the “victims we cannot see” (Walklate 2007), including the victims of gendered and racist violence as well as those of corporate crime, state crime and human rights abuses. Green criminologists have argued that “human centered” constructions of victimization neglect harms against non human species and of the planet itself (White 2008), and others challenge an “occidentalism” which downplays the exploitation of groups in developing countries (Hoyle and Zedner 2007). As these activities so often involve corporations they are highly relevant. Following these arguments, this Chapter will adopt a critical inclusive approach.


The nature of corporate victimization also makes it difficult to “count” and directly compare with victimization from conventional crime (Croall 2007; Whyte 2007). Many victims do not regard themselves as “crime” victims and indeed are very often unaware of any harm as they cannot, for example, test for themselves the contents of food, the quality of consumer goods or the degree to which air is polluted. As outlined above, many victims suffer only a very small loss, and others blame themselves for being taken in by fraudsters or other persuasive sales practices. Responsibility for a so called “accident” may only become evident after lengthy investigations, and the long term effect of harmful substances such as asbestos or food additives only slowly recognized, and in some cases, “redefined” as criminal. When victims do choose to report problems to relevant agencies, they are not reported as “crime” but more likely as an “incident” or “complaint.” The majority of crime or victimization surveys exclude corporate crime, even where victims would be aware of harm. Researchers aiming to “count” different forms of offences often therefore have to deconstruct a range of different statistical sources, such as the records of enforcement agencies, to estimate the amount which might be attributable to management (Tombs 2000).

Nevertheless, a variety of sources can be useful. Although limited to offences of which victims are aware, there have been academic studies of offences such as consumer frauds (Titus 2001; Shichor et al. 2000), and, in the US, the National White Collar Crime Center carries out a survey every five years on victimization from a range of white collar crimes including mortgage fraud, home and auto repairs, price misrepresentation and losses due to false stockbroker information, the latest in 2010 (National White Collar Crime Center 2010). Other information is found beyond traditional criminological sources. As will be seen below, some surveys, such as, in the UK, the Labor Force Survey or those carried out by consumer organizations or Government Departments such as the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) are equivalent to victim surveys, although not restricted to “criminal” complaints. A wide range of organizations also carry out surveys on specific issues and investigative journalism provides another invaluable source by exposing aspects of victimization. Much of this is easier, via the Internet, to gather together than hitherto. While relatively unsystematic and difficult to directly compare with “conventional” crime, research tends to confirm the general assumption that victimization from corporate crime is widespread and likely to exceed other equivalent forms of crime. A victim survey which did include questions on health and safety at work, consumer fraud and offences by landlords found higher levels than for other forms of crime (Pearce 1992), and the above mentioned 2010 National Public Survey on Whit

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