Crime is a violation of criminal law for which formal penalties are applied by some governmental authority. It represents some type of deviation from formal social norms administered by the state. Crimes are divided by law into various categories, depending on the severity of the offense, the age of the offender, the potential punishment that can be levied, and the court which holds jurisdiction over the case.
Sociologists find it useful to distinguish between types of crime on a somewhat different basis. Rather than relying solely on legal categories, sociologists classify crimes in terms of how they are committed and how the offenses are viewed by society. In this section, we will examine five types of crime as differentiated by sociologists: index crimes, professional crime, organized crime, white-collar crimes, and "victimless crimes."
Index CrimesThe term index crimes refers to the eight types of crimes that are reported annually by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in its Uniform Crime Reports. This category of criminal behavior generally consists of those serious offenses that people think of when they express concern about the nation's crime problem. Index crimes include murder, rape, robbery, and assault—all of which are violent crimes committed against people—as well as the property crimes of burglary, theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson. In the United States, many index crimes involve the use of firearms. According to the FBI, in the year 1986, 21 percent of all reported assaults, 34 percent of reported robberies, and 59 percent of reported murders involved the use of a firearm. More than 10,000 Americans died in 1985 through homicides committed with a Firearm. In addition, close to 1000 Americans die every year in accidents resulting from the improper use of a handgun. Since 1963, guns have killed approximately 400,000 Americans, a figure which exceeds the number of our troops who died in World War II. While the general public has consistently favored gun control legislation in recent decades, the nation's major anti-gun control lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA), has wielded impressive power in blocking or diluting such measures (Department of Justice, 1987a: 10, 18, 22; Morrow, 1981; National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice, 1974:139).
Sessional CrimeAlthough the adage "crime isn't pay" is familiar, many people do make a career of illegal activities. A professional criminal a person who pursues crime as a day-by-day occupation, developing skilled techniques and enjoying a certain degree of status among other criminals. Some professional criminals specialize burglary, safecracking, hijack-of cargo, pick pocketing, and shoplifting. Which persons can reduce the likelihood of arrest, eviction, and imprisonment through their skill? As a result, they may have long careers in their chosen "professions."
Edwin Sutherland (1937) offered pioneering insights regarding professional criminals by publishing an annotated account written by a professional thief. Unlike the person who engages in crime only once or twice, professional thieves make a business of stealing. These criminals devote their entire working time to planning and executing crimes and sometimes travel across the nation to pursue their "professional duties." Like persons in regular occupations, professional thieves consult with their colleagues concerning the demands of work, thus becoming part of a subculture of similarly occupied individuals. They exchange information on possible places to burglarize, outlets for unloading stolen goods, and ways of securing bail bonds if arrested.
Learning technical skills is an important aspect of working as a professional criminal. Sociologist Peter Letkemann (1973:117-136) makes a distinction between two types of criminal skills: those which are extensions of the legitimate social order but are sharpened and refined (such as the ability to detect when homeowners are away) and those skills not easily available to the average citizen (such as opening a safe). The latter are learned in the manner suggested by Sutherland in his cultural transmission approach. It is a norm among professional criminals that the chief areas for the exchange of criminal skills are the streets and prisons. Although such skills are not systematically taught in either place, they are nonetheless communicated effectively (Chambliss and Seidman, 1971:487; McCaghy, 1980:180-192).
Organized CrimeThe term organized crime has many meanings, as is evident from a 1978 government report that uses three pages to describe the term. For our purposes, we will consider organized crime to be the work of a group that regulates relations between various criminal enterprises involved in narcotics wholesaling, prostitution, gambling, and other activities. Organized crime dominates the world of illegal business just as large corporations dominate the conventional business world. It allocates territory, sets prices for illegal goods and services, and acts as an arbitrator in internal disputes (Blakey et al., 1978:107-109).
Organized crime is a secret, conspiratorial activity that generally evades law enforcement. Although precise information is lacking, a presidential commission estimated that organized crime operates in 80 percent of all cities with more than 1 million residents (President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, 1967:191). Organized crime takes over legitimate businesses, gains influence over labor unions, corrupts public officials, intimidates witnesses in criminal trials, and even "taxes" merchants in exchange for "protection" (National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice, 1976).
Through its success, organized crime has served as a means of mobility for groups of Americans struggling to escape poverty. Daniel Bell (1953:127—150) used the term ethnic succession to describe the process during which leadership of organized crime, held by Irish Americans in the early part of the twentieth century, was transferred in the 1920s to Jewish Americans. In the early 1930s, Jewish crime leaders were in turn replaced by Italian Americans. More recently, ethnic succession has become more complex, reflecting the diversity of the nation's latest immigrants. While blacks figure prominently in organized crime in Detroit and Atlantic City, Colombian immigrants are beginning to play a significant role in Miami, Mexicans in Chicago, and Pakistanis and Nigerians in New York (O'Connor, 1985).
Gradually, members of organized crime who are financially successful encourage their children to enter socially approved careers. The criminal enterprises are then relinquished to persons who have no such options (McCaghy, 1980:218). Francis Ianni and Elizabeth Reuss-Ianni (1973:82-85) traced the careers of the offspring of one family engaged in organized crime at the highest levels. Of 42 members, only 4 males continued to work in illegal enterprises. The balance held such jobs as English professor, stockbroker, psychologist, and physician.
White-Collar CrimeEdwin Sutherland, who popularized the differential association theory discussed earlier, noted that certain crimes are committed by affluent, "respectable" people in the course of their daily business activities. Sutherland (1949, 1983) likened these crimes to organized crime because they are often perpetrated through the roles of one's occupation (Hagan and Parker, 1985). In his 1939 presidential address to the American Sociological Society, Sutherland (1940) referred to such offenses as white-collar crimes. More recently, the term white-collar crime has been broadened to include offenses by businesses and corporations as well as by individuals. A wide variety of offenses are now classified as white-collar crimes, such as income tax evasion, stock manipulation, consumer fraud, bribery and extraction of "kickbacks," embezzlement, and misrepresentation in advertising (Braithwaite, 1985; J. W. Coleman, 1987; Edelhertz, 1983; McCaghy, 1980:242-244).
A new type of white-collar crime has emerged since Sutherland first wrote on this topic: computer crime. The use of such "high technology" allows one to carry out embezzlement or electronic fraud without leaving a trace, or to gain access to a company's inventory without leaving one's home. An adept programmer can gain access to a firm's computer by telephone and then copy valuable files. It is virtually impossible to track such persons unless they are foolish enough to call from the same phone each time.
Representative William Hughes, Democrat of New Jersey and head of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, points out: "Computer technology has left us with a new breed of technologically sophisticated criminals. Their tools are no longer Smith & Wesson, but I.B.M. and Apple. Unless we act now, computer crime will be the crime wave of the next decade." With this danger in mind, Congress passed the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, which makes it a federal felony to use computers for certain types of fraud or theft. This law also prohibits breaking into many computers and causing "malicious damage"—for example, by destroying computer programs or altering passwords (Creenhouse, 1986а:А1, A17).
White-collar crime has become a widespread and disturbing reality within American society. In addition to the financial costs of this form of me, which run into billions of dollars per year, White-collar crime has distinctive social costs, in-ding a decline in the quality of life and a weaking of the social order (Conklin, 1981:50). Ralph Nader (1985:F3), director of the Corporate Accountability Research Group, suggests that "by almost any measure, crime in the suites takes far more money and produces far more casualties and diseases than crime in the streets— bad as that situation is."
Given the economic and social costs of white-collar crime, one might expect this problem to be taken quite seriously by the criminal justice system of the United States. Yet white-collar offenders are more likely to receive fines than prison sentences. In federal courts—where most white-collar cases are considered—probation is granted to 40 percent of those who have violated antitrust laws, 61 percent of those convicted of fraud, and 70 percent of convicted embezzlers (Gest, 1985a). In Etzioni's study (1985) cited above, he found that in 43 percent of the incidents either no penalty was imposed or the company was required merely to cease engaging in the illegal practice and to return any funds gained through illegal means (for a different view, see Manson, 1986).
Moreover, conviction for such illegal acts does not generally harm a person's reputation and career aspirations nearly so much as conviction for an index crime would. Apparently, the label "white-collar criminal" does not carry the stigma of the label "felon convicted of a violent crime." In the view of conflict theorists, such differential labeling and treatment is not surprising. The conflict perspective argues that the criminal justice system largely disregards the white-collar crimes of the affluent, while focusing on index crimes often committed by the poor. Thus, if an offender holds a position of status and influence, his or her crime is treated as less serious and the sanction is much more lenient (Katznelson and Kesselman, 1979:352-355).
A striking example of this pattern can be found in the judicial treatment of the people involved in the Watergate scandal, which led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in 1974. More than 20 men served prison terms for their role in various Watergate-related crimes; many had been high officials in the Nixon adminisiration. But of these men, only five served as much as one year in jail: E. Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Liddy (the longest at 52 months), former Attorney General John Mitchell, and former presidential aides H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman.
The judicial system was much less lenient in its treatment of one of the heroic figures of the Watergate crisis: Frank Wills, the $80 per week security guard who discovered the Watergate break-in during his night shift and called police. Wills, 35 and black, was unemployed in the early 1980s and living with his mother in North Augusta, South Carolina. In 1983, he was convicted of shoplifting shoes just across the state line in Augusta, Georgia. Wills claimed that the shoes were intended as a gift for his 15-year-old son. Unlike almost all the Watergate criminals, he was given the maximum jail sentence for his crime: 12 months in jail for stealing a $12 pair of sneakers (Time, 1983).
In a more recent example of such differential justice, the Department of Justice agreed to a 1985 plea-bargaining agreement with E.F. Hut-ton and Company. The firm pleaded guilty to 2000 counts of defrauding hundreds of American banks through a check manipulation scheme. Hutton agreed to pay a record $2 million fine, to pay the government an additional $750,000 for the costs of the investigation, and to make restitution to the injured parties. In return, the Justice Department agreed not to prosecute any of the E.F. Hutton officials responsible for these white-collar crimes. Ibis aspect of the agreement outraged many legislators, political columnists, and consumer-protection activists. Concerned that a corporate crime wave is sweeping the United States, Ralph Nader insisted that strong sanctions are needed to punish such influential white-collar criminals. In his view, "If the forces of law and corporate order wish to protect the integrity of business institutions, they should start at the top" (Green and Berry, 1985a, 1985b: Nader, I985:F3; Safire, 1985; S. Taylor, 1985).
Victimless Crimes Inwhite-collar or index crimes, people's economic or personal well-being is endangered against their will (or without their direct knowledge). By contrast, sociologists use the term victimless crimes to describe the willing exchange among adults of widely desired, but illegal, goods and services (Schur, 1965:169, 1985). Despite the social costs to families and friends of persons engaged in such behavior, many Americans continue to view gambling, prostitution, public drunkenness, and use of marijuana as victimless crimes in which there is no "victim" other than the offender. As a result, there has been pressure from some groups to decriminalize various activities which fall into the category of victimless crimes.
Supporters of decriminalization are troubled by the attempt to legislate a moral code of behavior for adults. In their view, it is impossible to prevent prostitution, gambling, and other victimless crimes. The already overburdened criminal justice system should instead devote its resources to "street crimes" and other offenses which have obvious victims. However, opponents of decriminalization insist that such offenses do indeed bring harm to innocent victims. For example, a person with a drinking problem can become abusive to a spouse or children; a compulsive gambler may steal in order to pursue this obsession. Therefore, according to critics of decriminalization, society must not give tacit approval to conduct which has such harmful consequences (National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice, 1976:216-248; Schur, 1968, 1985).
The controversy over decriminalization reminds us of the important insights of labeling and conflict theories presented earlier. Underlying this debate are two interesting questions: Who has the power to define gambling, prostitution, and public drunkenness as "crimes"? And who has the power to label such behaviors as "victimless"? It is generally the state legislatures and, in some cases, the police and the courts.
Again, we can see that criminal law is not simply a universal standard of behavior agreed upon by all members of society. Rather, it reflects the struggle among competing individuals and groups to gain governmental support for their particular moral and social values. For example, such organizations as Mothers against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Students against Drunk Driving (SADD) have had success in recent years in shifting public attitudes toward drunkenness. Rather than being viewed as a "victimless crime," drunkenness is increasingly being associated with the potential dangers of driving while under the influence of alcohol. As a result, the mass media are giving greater (and more critical) attention to people guilty of drunk driving, while many states have instituted more severe fines and jail terms for a wide variety of alcohol-related offenses.