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The Routledge International Handbook of the Crimes of the Powerful
Gregg Barak
Corporate crimes and the problems of enforcement
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Ronald Burns
Published online on: 17 Jun 2015
How to cite :- Ronald Burns. 17 Jun 2015 ,Corporate crimes and the problems of enforcement
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Part III
Corporate crimes
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Corporate crimes and the
problems of enforcement
Ronald Burns
Corporations primarily exist to generate profit. As such, they consistently seek to gain competitive advantages directed toward maximizing profits. Unfortunately, some of their actions fall
outside of the law, violate human rights, and/or harm society. Combined, their crimes are more
costly than street crime. The primary intentions of the corporate actors are not necessarily to
harm or injure anyone or anything; however, pressures to perform result in violations and harms
that traditionally have gone largely unnoticed by the general public and law enforcement. Competition, pressures from various sources (e.g., shareholders, supervisors), globalization, limited
law enforcement responses, and related factors contribute to the occurrence and perpetuation of
corporate crime.
Society is changing at a constant and rapid pace. Technological developments and advancements, and international travel, commerce, and communication have changed the way we live and
how crime is committed. In light of these changes, there is some concern that law enforcement/
regulatory agencies are not prepared for what is occurring and what is ahead with regard to
corporate crime. Accordingly, this chapter addresses several important areas of corporate crime,
including the history of corporate crime, theoretical approaches used to explain corporate crime,
and research and methodological issues pertaining to corporate crime, including discussion of
current corporate crime enforcement efforts in the United States, the limitations of these efforts,
and reasons for these limitations. Particular attention is devoted to the groups primarily charged
with exposing and enforcing corporate crime, as well as legislative efforts and prosecutorial issues
pertaining to corporate crime. The chapter concludes with a look at what may be done to better address corporate crime, and a brief account of international corporate crime enforcement
Corporate crime is a subcategory of white-collar crime that generally “involves offences committed by companies or their agents against members of the public, the environment, creditors,
investors or corporate competitors” (Grabosky and Braithwaite, 1986, p. 2). Among the different
types of corporate crime are corporate violence, corporate theft, corporate financial manipulation,
and corporate political corruption (Friedrichs, 2010). Ultimately, corporate crime is a complex
term that incorporates many different actions and behaviors committed by various groups.
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R. Burns
Enforcement efforts related to corporate crime extend beyond law enforcement and regulatory officials simply identifying corporate misbehavior and making arrests. In particular, enforcing corporate crime involves investigations to discover violations, investigations to construct
cases against violators, efforts to secure voluntary compliance, and initiating legal action to stop
the violation or punish the violator (Frank and Lynch, 1992). In summarizing the need for the
enforcement of corporate crime, Michalowski and Kramer (2006, p. 175) note, “Insofar as they
control nearly all production and distribution, corporations must be held responsible for maximizing social well-being, not just for generating private profit.”
Edwin H. Sutherland is credited with introducing the term “white-collar crime,” which includes
corporate crimes. Other commenters prior to Sutherland’s influential work referenced crimes
of the powerful, although not as pronounced and concise as Sutherland, and several scholars
have clarified his definition to more accurately address white-collar crime. Among those who
earlier referenced what is today considered white-collar crime were Cesare Beccaria, Karl Marx,
Friedrich Engels, and E.A. Ross (Friedrichs, 2010).
Sutherland’s work helped set the stage for empirical evaluations of corporate crime, which
contributed to clarifying the term white-collar crime. Among the early researchers who examined corporate crime and criminals were Donald Cressey (1953), who interviewed imprisoned
embezzlers, and Marshall Clinard (1952) and Frank Hartung (1950) who studied black market
offenses in World War II and violators of the wartime regulations in the meat industry, respectively. The study of white-collar and corporate crime waned during the 1960s, yet received
notable attention in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Despite recognition of the term white-collar crime in the twentieth century, white-collar
crime, including what would today be considered corporate crime, existed throughout much
of history. For instance, Green (1990) cites examples of laws throughout history, including a
fourteenth-century BC law prohibiting judicial bribe taking, and examples of white-collar crime
in ancient Greece and ancient Persia. Geis (1988) cites the example of Henry III (1216–1272)
passing laws to prohibit the practice of purchasing large amounts of food and then controlling the
prices. Green (1990) also noted that by 1812, England had passed complex regulations regarding
labor practices. To be sure, the offending groups were not incorporated in the same sense as modern corporations, although their actions could be deemed corporate crime, and there are many
other examples throughout history which provide evidence of corporate crime, and enforcement
efforts directed toward it.
Corporate deviance existed long before corporate crime, given that the laws regulating corporate behavior emerged in a piecemeal manner over time. Throughout history, corporations
were permitted to engage in a harmful, immoral, and deviant manner as there was little regulation restricting their behavior. The regulation of corporate behavior largely emerged in relation
to corporate scandals and public concern, although the proliferation of corporations themselves,
which was spurred by the Industrial Revolution and advancements in transportation that facilitated the distribution of goods, also contributed to the need for greater regulation of corporate
Public concern for the enforcement of corporate crime fluctuates largely in response to the
exposure of notably problematic corporate crimes. For instance, several high-profile cases around
the turn of the twenty-first century (e.g., those involving Enron, WorldCom, and Adelphia) generated much concern for corporate misconduct. Politicians responded through legislative efforts,
and authorities cracked down on corporations, holding them more accountable and requiring
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Corporate crimes and enforcement
them to make their actions and records more accessible to the authorities. Eventually, the public
concern that emerged surrounding these events subsided, as the public and politicians directed
their attention to other social problems, such as the terrorist attacks and related concerns for
homeland security. Similar situations occurred throughout history, for instance, as the Food and
Drug Administration (established in 1906), the Food Safety Inspection Service (1907), and the
Federal Trade Commission (1914) were created to address public concern regarding corporate
harms (Lynch et al., 2000).
The courts and legislators have been notably influential in efforts to enforce corporate crime.
For instance, early state laws were unable to regulate corporate practices that were typically
interstate in scope; thus the US Supreme Court gave the federal government the power to
regulate interstate commerce, and generally transferred the primary regulatory responsibility for
larger corporations from the states to the federal government (Friedrichs, 2010). Further, the US
Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890, which included both civil and criminal
provisions, and protected the public from monopolization and business practices that resulted in
a restraint of trade (Berger, 2011).
A laissez-faire economic philosophy with relatively little regulation characterizes the nineteenth century in the US. Earlier federal regulatory and law enforcement agencies focused on
banking and agriculture, and during the later 1800s and early 1900s several regulatory agencies
were created to help address corporate crime. For instance, the Interstate Commerce Commission was created in 1887 to regulate the railroad industry, and became the first federal regulatory
agency charged with specifically regulating potentially harmful activity (Friedrichs, 2010). Further, the Securities and Exchange Commission was created following the stock market crash of
1929 via the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. The agency was
designed to restore investor confidence and provide investors with more reliable information to
ensure honest dealing. Laws that would assist with the enforcement of corporate harms, however,
emerged only slowly (Lynch et al., 2000).
Similar to the development of today’s regulatory agencies, the history of the federal law
enforcement agencies is characterized by the emergence of various agencies in response to pressing social issues. Federal law enforcement agencies originated at different times, although the
federal agencies that currently play important roles in the enforcement of corporate crime did
not emerge until relatively later in the development of the US. For instance, the Federal Bureau of
Investigation emerged in 1908, and the Secret Service originated in 1865. The Bureau of Internal
Revenue, a precursor of the Internal Revenue Service, was set up by the Revenue Tax Act of 1862
which created the first personal federal income tax in the US. Federal law enforcement experienced much growth and maturation from the second half of the nineteenth century through the
early part of the twentieth century, as the nation grew and needs arose (Bumgarner et al., 2013).
David Friedrichs (2010) identified cycles of regulatory expansion that have occurred throughout the twentieth century in the US. He noted that the first cycle was the Progressive era
(1900–1914), when public concern for the abuses of large corporations generated “significant
government intervention in harmful corporate and occupational activities on behalf of the public
interest” (p. 284). The second period of regulatory initiatives emerged during the New Deal era
of the 1930s, which was inspired in part by the 1929 stock market crash and Great Depression
which occurred following the actions of unregulated abuses by major corporations and major
financiers. The third period of expanding federal regulation began in the Great Society era of the
1960s and 1970s, which included a growing awareness and public protest over harmful corporate
behavior. There were 28 regulatory agencies policing corporate crime by the 1960s; the number
jumped to 56 over the next two decades as public concern regarding corporate misbehavior
increased (Meier, 1985).
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Recognition of corporate harms against the environment, including high-profile incidents
such as the illegal dumping of hazardous waste (e.g., in Love Canal), generated much public
concern regarding corporations wrongfully and illegally harming the environment. Public concern largely contributed to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, a
federal regulatory agency that helps protect the environment. Concern for corporate crime is
further evidenced in the creation of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Occupational
Safety and Health Administration, and Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration between
1970 and 1973 (Friedrichs, 2010). Despite these periods of pro-regulation, there have been several periods when deregulation was the primary focus. In fact, the latter part of the twentieth
century and the beginning of the twenty-first century are characterized by political efforts to
deregulate industry, as the emphasis on government regulation of the economy began to erode
in the late 1970s.
Congress initially gave the president power to make regulatory rules in 1790 and to other
officials in the executive branch in 1813 (Bryner, 1987). Presidents can hamper regulatory efforts
in various ways, for instance, through reducing the budgets and staffs of regulatory agencies,
and appointing individuals who favor deregulation to head regulatory agencies. As an example,
George W. Bush appointed J. Steven Griles, a lobbyist for the mining industry, to head the Bureau
of Mines (Berger, 2011). Relatively recently, support for the deregulation of financial markets was
largely evident beginning with the Reagan administration and continuing through George W.
Bush’s terms in office. President Obama has strongly emphasized regulation during his terms in
office, and perhaps ushered in a new period of regulation that may provide great promise for the
control of corporate crime. President Clinton, a democrat, leaned more toward pro-regulation
than the latter-day Republican presidents, as he addressed some notable antitrust cases and environmental regulation. However, he was generally supportive of deregulation of financial markets
(Berger, 2011).
Theoretical overview
Various theoretical perspectives help explain why corporate crime exists, and no single theory
explains its incidence. Explaining corporate crime is clouded by efforts to explain such behavior
on a macro level, or in relation to the larger society (e.g., the effects of capitalism), in relation to
the impact of organizations, or based on differences among individuals. The impacts of capitalism
in particular are noted in Marxist or neo-Marxist theory (Engels, 1895, 1958), which generally
suggests that capitalism creates classes in which the powerful control less powerful groups. The
emphasis on generating power and control, then, would presumably encourage corporate crime.
Radical and critical perspectives on crime became increasingly popular during the 1970s, and
were influenced by Marxist theory. These theories focused more on the criminalization process,
or how crime is conceived and responded to, rather than the particular causes of crime. The
historically lax enforcement of corporate crime, it is argued, is largely attributable to government
authorities and other powerful groups in society showing a limited interest in responding to the
crimes of the powerful.
Frank and Lynch (1992) highlighted the contrast in thought regarding assessments of the most
significant barriers to the regulatory effectiveness in addressing corporate crime. They noted that
pluralist theorists typically focus on organizational factors, including the lack of resources for
effective enforcement, limited expertise on behalf of the personnel, insufficient incentives to formally act, and an organizational culture that encourages regulators to seek voluntary compliance.
Conflict theorists, however, primarily focus on the power of the corporate sector to influence
regulatory power, which ultimately hampers enforcement efforts.
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The characteristics and influences of an organization or corporation have also been examined
and used to explain corporate crime. For instance, corporations may have cultures that encourage
misconduct through active or subtle persuasion, or tolerance or indifference toward misconduct.
Some organizations have been identified as crime coercive or crime facilitative. The former
encourage personnel to commit crime, whereas the latter provide conditions conducive to corporate crime (Needleman and Needleman, 1979). Various organizational factors, both internal
and external, appear to influence the occurrence of corporate crime. For instance, the pressure
to generate profits could be influential, as could economic crises in which the ability to generate
profits is hampered. Further, the nature of the work performed in some corporate sectors generates greater opportunities to engage in corporate crime, and to have different levels of potential
detection and likelihood of sanction.
Many theories used to explain corporate crime are micro level in nature; they focus on the
individual. For instance, the roots of criminological theory are grounded in the works of Jeremy
Bentham (1789, 1948) and Cesare Beccaria (1764, 1963), who generally believed that individuals
make rational decisions and should be held accountable for them. Beccaria noted that individuals
seek to maximize pleasure and minimize pain; a concept that certainly provides a starting point
for the study of why individuals engage in corporate crime. For example, introducing more
severe penalties for corporate offending would, according to proponents of rational choice, deter
individuals. Toward this end, Gallo (1998) noted that law enforcement efforts have impacted
corporate crime given that the actors involved are generally informed, rational individuals who
are deterred by the threat of being caught.
Examinations of rational choice and corporate offending include Piquero et al.’s study
(2005a), which found that the desire for control influenced rational choice considerations.
Further, Paternoster and Simpson (1993) provided a theoretical perspective to corporate misconduct that includes both personal and organizational factors such as consideration of the
severity of sanction, perceived level of legitimacy and fairness, and characteristics of the criminal event.
Individual-level theories are often categorized according to biological, psychological, and
sociological theories. Sociological theories have generated the most interest among scholars
attempting to explain corporate crime. Biological or biosocial theories are becoming increasingly noted in the research literature; for instance, Beaver and Holtfreter (2009) found a statistically significant Gene X Environment interaction which increased the likelihood of fraudulent
behaviors in the sample they studied, although only among male participants with a high number
of delinquent peers. Aside from this and a handful of other studies, biological theories have been
used sparingly in efforts to explain corporate crime.
Psychological theories of corporate crime have focused on traits such as personality, mental
processes, the impacts of early childhood traumas, and related issues. Personality traits are among
the more commonly studied explanations of corporate crime (Friedrichs, 2010). Research in the
area mostly suggests that personality is not a particularly strong predictor of engagement in corporate crime, as white-collar offenders typically appear to be psychologically normal (Coleman,
1998). Some studies, however, suggest that white-collar crime offenders are more likely to demonstrate high levels of hedonism, narcissism, and conscientiousness (Blickle et al., 2006). Other
researchers noted that individuals with a desire for control were significantly more willing to
violate the law than their counterparts (Piquero et al., 2005a).
Among the more commonly cited sociological theoretical explanations of corporate crime are
differential association, variations of Merton’s version of anomie, neutralization theory, control
theory, and several integrated theories. These and other sociological theories generally focus on
the influences of society on corporate crime.
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Edwin Sutherland’s influential introduction of the term “white-collar crime” coincided with
his belief that his theory of differential association could help explain why individuals from all
classes commit crime. His theory is largely predicated on the belief that behaviors (including
criminal behavior) are based on learning from associations and interactions with significant
others (Sutherland, 1940). Along these lines, corporate crime could be explained in part by the
negative influences of co-workers within a corporation.
Various adaptations of Robert Merton’s (Merton, 1968) work on anomie offer insight into the
occurrence of corporate crime. Merton’s theory generally explained crime through proposing
that some individuals without legitimate means to achieve their goals resort to illegitimate means
to attain them. With consideration of Merton’s work, Langton and Piquero (2007) examined
the ability of Agnew’s (Agnew, 1992) general strain theory using data from convicted whitecollar offenders and found that the theory was useful for predicting some types of white-collar
offenses; however, it may not be generalizable to those who commit corporate-type offenses.
Further, Schoepfer and Piquero (2006) found some support for institutional anomie theory in
relation to embezzlement.
Sykes and Matza (1957) earlier introduced neutralization theory in their assessment of how
juvenile delinquents justified their illegal behaviors and eased their guilt. The techniques of
neutralization include denial of victim, denial of injury, denial of responsibility, condemning the
condemners, and appealing to higher loyalties. This theory has also been used to explain corporate behavior; for instance, Piquero et al. (2005b) found that neutralization techniques played an
integral role in decisions to engage in corporate crime, especially for older persons and if profit
was involved. The use of rationalizations to justify wrongful behavior exists across a wide range
of white-collar offenders (Shover and Hochstetler, 2002), and neutralization theory does not
necessarily explain why corporate crime initially occurs. Instead, it provides an understanding of
how offenders rationalize or attempt to justify their actions.
Travis Hirschi (1969) earlier offered a control theory of juvenile delinquency which generally
proposes that individuals are controlled by forces and will engage in misbehavior without the
necessary social bonding. Empirical support for control theory is found in a study of automobile
corporation executives in which subjects who reported stronger attachments and commitments
were less likely to admit to white-collar offenses than their counterparts who had weaker bonds
(Lasley, 1988).
Some scholars attempted to integrate theories to better explain white-collar and corporate
crime. Among those who proposed integrated theories of white-collar crime is Braithwaite (1989),
who used structural Marxist theory and differential association theory. Researchers have also noted
the interconnectedness of white-collar crimes, for instance, with the introduction of state-corporate
crimes, which are “criminal acts that occur when one or more institutions of political governance
pursue a goal in direct cooperation with one or more institutions of economic production and
distribution” (Kramer et al., 2002, p. 263). Research in the area includes the examination of the role
of the G.W. Bush administration with regard to state-corporate crime in relation to global warming,
with consideration of the government’s ties with energy companies (Lynch et al., 2010).
Research and methodological issues
Various research and methodological issues surround the enforcement of corporate crime. Primary among them are the need to prevent, identify, and respond to corporate misbehavior.
These enforcement-oriented practices are strongly impacted by legislative efforts which guide
corporate behavior and enforcement actions, and prosecutorial practices which help determine
sanctions for and can have deterrent effects on corporate crime.
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Enforcing corporate crime
Enforcement efforts directed toward corporate crime have largely been reactive in nature, and
when they have proactively addressed corporate crime their actions have been directed toward
small businesses and subordinate managers (Benson and Cullen, 1998; Friedrichs, 2010). Reacting
to a problem means that the problem exists, and similar, unexposed problems are likely occurring.
The reactive approach taken by those tasked with enforcing corporate crimes is reflective of the
history of law enforcement in general, although recent efforts by local police departments have
stressed a more proactive approach, which could perhaps serve as a blueprint for all authorities
responsible for enforcing corporate crime.
Corporate crime is notably underreported and there is a lack of systematic documentation of its incidence (e.g., Burns and Lynch, 2004). What is known about corporate crime
generally comes from agency records (e.g., arrest records, criminal complaints), victim input,
self-report studies, and direct observation of corporate crime. Each of these sources contains
many limitations, which subsequently hampers efforts to understand and respond to corporate
Corporate crime enforcement efforts often require great efforts, inter-agency cooperation,
and many resources. They can involve both public agencies and individuals in the general public.
Among the primary government agencies that largely help expose corporate crime are government regulatory agencies, law enforcement agencies, and politicians. Prominent among the nongovernment groups and individuals that largely assist in exposing corporate crime are the media,
informants, whistleblowers, and the general public.
A primary challenge in the enforcement of corporate crime has been the lack of transparency regarding such behavior. Further, corporate crimes are particularly costly in many respects,
for instance, as they pertain to victim costs, prosecution, regulation, and enforcement. In commenting on the challenges associated with prosecuting corporate crimes, Cullen and colleagues
noted that “the decision to prosecute is complex because prosecutors must balance their desire
to enforce the law against the reality of limited resources” (Cullen et al., 2006, p. 347). Periods following corporate scandals enable regulators to assume more of an enforcement-oriented
approach which contrasts with their more traditional approach of trying to balance their compliance and enforcement missions (Snider, 2009). In her examination of the enforcement of corporate crime following the Enron scandal, Brickey (2006, p. 419) noted that “The corporate fraud
prosecution cycle following Enron’s collapse ha(d) an unparalleled number of criminal trials of
senior corporate executives in just three years.”
Despite the widespread effects of corporate crime, limited effective enforcement and regulatory practices persist. Compared to conventional crime, corporate crimes are heavily underreported, which makes it appear that they don’t occur as often as they do and are not as problematic
as they truly are. The lack of reporting stems from many factors, including victims being unaware
of the harms they incur from corporate crime. Further, corporate crimes are more discreet, as the
effects of the illegal behavior are often removed in time from the actual commission of the crime.
Corporate crime offenders are typically not present at the scene of the crime.
In addition to these differences, the intent of corporate crime is not always so apparent
(e.g., Ivancevich et al., 2003), as corporate offenders are less likely than conventional criminals,
particularly violent offenders, to wish to inflict harm. Instead, corporate offenders generally
wish to generate (often additional) capital. Corporate crimes are often viewed as “mistakes”
or “the cost of doing business,” and the associated harms are often attributed to recklessness or
negligence. Ultimately, the inability to directly link corporate harms with corporate decisionmaking, and the challenges associated with determining a corporate actor’s intent, result in much
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misinterpretation of corporate crime, the underreporting of corporate crime, and the lack of
enforcement of such practices.
Government groups, individuals, and groups from the general public help expose corporate
crime. Among the groups in the general public are informants, whistleblowers, the media, consumer interest groups, consumers, and the general public itself. Whistleblowers and informants
are helpful in the sense that they are privy to inside information. Consumer interest groups
contribute by tracking faulty products that help identify corporate misconduct. The media have
been particularly influential in exposing corporate crime through investigative journalism. One
of the more influential pieces of investigative journalism was Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book The Jungle, in which he exposed harmful practices in the meatpacking industry, generated public uproar,
and contributed to the creation of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection
Act. The general public and consumers expose corporate crime in several ways, perhaps most
significantly by demonstrating concern for corporate misbehavior, which in turn perpetuates
political response, and making efforts to recognize corporate crime when it occurs. Despite the
benefits and assistance of these and other groups, the exposure and enforcement of corporate
crime has largely remained the responsibility of law enforcement and regulatory agencies.
Law enforcement in the United States is decentralized, as law enforcement agencies exist at
the local, state, and federal levels. Most law enforcement personnel work at the local level, and
this group most often interacts with the public and closely monitors local activities. Such large
numbers and close proximity to the citizenry would suggest that local law enforcement plays
a significant role in exposing and enforcing corporate crime. However, local law enforcement
agencies are particularly limited in this regard, and have responded in a piecemeal manner to
corporate crimes, often in response to citizen complaints. Among the limitations are local police
officers being preoccupied with conventional crime, their lack of access to corporate practices,
jurisdictional issues, their lack of resources, a lack of specialization and training, and their general
lack of concern for corporate crimes which they generally view as the responsibility of other law
enforcement groups and regulatory agencies. State law enforcement agencies generally suffer the
same limitations, and are notably smaller in number and more distant from the public than are
local law enforcement agencies.
Federal law enforcement groups are largely responsible for exposing and enforcing the laws
regarding corporate crime. Federal agencies have nationwide jurisdiction and greater levels of
specialization to directly address most forms of corporate crime compared to other law enforcement groups. The complexity of many corporate crimes requires specialized training and education, specifically with regard to accounting, auditing, and business administration (Schlegel,
2000). There are dozens of federal law enforcement agencies, although the large majority do not
primarily focus on corporate crime, as their legal jurisdiction is much wider. Primary among the
other federal agencies that house personnel with interests in exposing and enforcing corporate
crime include regulatory agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Food
and Drug Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Environmental
Protection Agency. For instance, the Securities and Exchange Commission seeks to protect investors and maintain the integrity of the securities market, and typically deals with cases involving
insider trading, accounting fraud, and offering false or misleading information regarding securities and the companies that offer them (Ivancevich et al., 2003).
Although regulatory investigators have the authority to enter and inspect corporations without warrants or probable cause and regularly collect information regarding corporate behavior as
they pertain to regulatory reporting requirements, investigating and prosecuting corporate crime
remains a difficult task (Frank and Lynch, 1992). Compounding the difficulties is the fact that
federal regulatory agencies are generally understaffed and lack the funding to adequately address
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corporate crime. These challenges have been particularly problematic during the presidential
administrations that supported deregulation (Berger, 2011).
Regulatory agencies regulate industry, and in doing so have to recognize the interests of both
society and the corporations within the industry which they regulate. Corporate crime enforcement efforts have at times been accused of infringing the free market, and at other times have
been accused of not doing enough to protect society. Regulatory enforcement of corporate
crime has generally adopted two distinct styles: persuasion and prosecution. Persuasion involves
encouraging corporations to conform, and relies on compliance, education, negotiation, and
cooperation. It is the softer of the two approaches. Prosecution involves a reliance on the imposition of the law to encourage and sanction. Historically, regulatory practices have leaned toward
persuasion, and prosecute when efforts directed toward persuasion fail. Another approach, selfregulation, or voluntary compliance, is supported by advocates of deregulation who believe that
companies can monitor their own behaviors. Proponents of deregulation argue that regulatory
enforcement actions generate additional problems and hamper economic progress. The particular styles adopted by the various regulatory agencies vary according to several factors, including
economic and legal challenges in implementing regulations, the detectability of corporate crimes,
and the political environment (e.g., Kagan, 1989).
Regulators and other law enforcement officials have often been reluctant to adopt a strict
enforcement approach, or the legalistic style of enforcement, due in part to the complexities
associated with many corporate crimes, and the extensive resources often required to effectively
formally adjudicate them. In turn, they often rely on their civil powers instead of invoking the
criminal law (Lynch et al., 2000), enabling corporate offenders to avoid the construction of the
negative images associated with “criminals” as opposed to “individuals who violated civil law.”
Corporate self-policing or self-regulation has been proposed to address the limitations associated with the enforcement of corporate crime. Self-regulation seems an effective approach
given the hidden nature of corporate crime, the lack of resources of corporate crime enforcement groups, the corporate self-interest in maintaining a positive reputation, and the fear of
stricter government intervention and regulation. It is also a more cost-effective approach from
the government’s perspective. However, it has been noted that self-regulation is unlikely to be
effective or extensive unless external pressures encourage corporations to seriously engage in
self-regulation (Braithwaite and Fisse, 1987). Further, Stretesky and Lynch (2009) examined the
US Environmental Protection Agency’s Self-Policing Policy which waives or reduces penalties
when companies voluntarily discover, disclose, and address environmental violations, and found
that facilities which used the policy had similar subsequent Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) emissions as sites that did not use the policy, and added that formal enforcement actions were the best
predictor of TRI reductions.
Private police agencies have grown in large numbers since World War II, and they also play
a role in exposing and enforcing corporate crime. These agencies, however, as they exist in the
corporate or business setting, have often concealed rather than expose and enforce corporate
misbehavior (Friedrichs, 2010), due in part to their interests in protecting the groups for whom
they are employed.
Legislation and prosecution
Several systems of law are used independently or simultaneously to address corporate crime.
Victims may file civil suits against the corporation that harmed them, or the government may
invoke the criminal law or use various administrative, regulatory controls. A benefit of private
civil suits is that the victim(s) is compensated for harms. Private civil suits occur rarely relative to
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the extent of corporate crime victimization, although they would seemingly serve as a deterrent
to corporate crime, since the civil damages awarded in civil suits are frequently many times larger
than the maximum fine that the government could impose (Frank and Lynch, 1992).
There is disagreement, however, regarding the effectiveness of private civil suits in deterring
corporate crime, as it is argued that the financial costs and potential negative publicity would
act as a deterrent, although there are examples over time in which corporate leaders have made
explicit decisions to expose themselves to private civil suits based on their belief that the costs of
settling the cases would be less than the profits generated (Frank and Lynch, 1992). The famous
Ford Pinto case in the early 1970s in which Ford calculated that it would be cheaper to settle
cases rather than recall and repair the harmful vehicles provides clear evidence (Dowie, 1977).
The laws they are required to enforce hamper those tasked with enforcing corporate crime.
Primary among the obstacles in enforcing corporate crime has been limited and ineffective
legislative actions, which are sometimes, and perhaps often, the result of corporations using their
social, political, ideological, and economic capital in shaping the law. Such power is also used to
counter regulatory enforcement strategies used against them (Snider, 2009).
Nevertheless, several legislative efforts have helped authorities enforce corporate crime, and
to some extent discouraged corporations from engaging in crime. Among the notable legislative
efforts are the Crime Control Act of 1990, which provides banking regulators with expanded
tools to address fraud and other crimes in the savings and loan industries; the Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act (1970), which seeks to prohibit the use of an enterprise
and racketeering, and was originated in response to organized crime but has also contributed to
combatting corporate crime; the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act
of 1989, which enhanced many penalties associated with crimes committed by financial institutions; the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits companies that report to the Securities
and Exchange Commission from collaborating with foreign parties to influence their decision to
obtain or retain business; and the Comprehensive Control Act, or the Federal Sentencing Guidelines that Congress passed in 1984 and was later amended in 1990. Among other contributions,
the guidelines provided consistency in the sentencing of corporate offenders. Certainly, other
legislative acts have contributed to the enforcement of corporate crime, including mail and wire
fraud statutes, and insider trading laws (Shichor et al., 2002).
One relatively recent legislative effort was the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which emerged in
response to the collapse of Enron and other major corporate scandals. Among other goals, the
Act sought to address corporate crime through mandatory financial reporting and increased
penalties for corporate offenders. It also promotes accountability through protecting whistleblowers, emphasizes criminal liability, and demonstrates a more proactive and enforcementoriented approach that differs from the reactive approach assumed in the past. Further, the Act
has increased the allocation of resources devoted to the Security and Exchange Commission and
the Department of Justice to fight corporate crime. There are conflicting views regarding the
Act’s effectiveness, as it is suggested that it contributed to the increased adjudication of corporate
offenders with the goal of deterrence and retribution (Meeks, 2006), although it is also suggested
that judges have been somewhat reluctant to impose tougher sentences, and the potential deterrent effects of this aspect of the legislation have been hampered (Harvard Law Review Association, 2009).
The successful prosecution of corporate crimes is important for the effective enforcement of
corporate crime, although it has been challenging on a number of fronts. Primary among the
difficulties associated with prosecuting corporate crimes are the heavier burden of proof required
in criminal courts compared to civil courts, determining whether to prosecute the corporation
or individuals within the corporation, political pressures, a lack of resources, and the complexities
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Corporate crimes and enforcement
associated with many corporate crimes. Further, the relatively lenient fines historically meted out
to corporate offenders have discouraged prosecutors from using the criminal courts (Frank and
Lynch, 1992). Research suggests that regulators generally believe the criminal laws have much
potential to address corporate crime; however, they are reluctant to use the criminal justice system
due to its perceived inefficiency and leniency (Snider, 2009).
Prosecution is often used after methods of persuasion and encouragement of compliance fail.
Prosecutors who wish to file criminal as opposed to civil charges face the burden of having to
demonstrate guilt beyond reasonable doubt. In civil courts, the level of proof required is a preponderance of evidence, which is easier to demonstrate. With regard to deciding to prosecute corporations or individuals, it was suggested that “the preferred statutory scheme should generally provide
for both individual and enterprise liability, with the appropriateness of each to be determined
case by case through the exercise of sound prosecutorial discretion” (Cullen et al., 2006, p. 356).
Historically, punishment has seldom been directed at individuals (Ermann and Lundman, 1996).
The goals of prosecuting corporate crimes differ from those of prosecuting street crime,
which have largely involved special deterrence and incapacitation. In contrast, the primary prosecutorial goals for corporate crime have more directly focused on general deterrence (Cullen
et al., 2006). There are some exceptions to the historical use of light sentences for corporate
offenders, although “these actions have yielded significant, but not lasting, financial and other
consequences for large organizations” (Ermann and Lundman, 1996, p. 41).
Despite the many historical challenges encountered with the enforcement of corporate crime,
there is much room for hope. Change, however, is necessary. Society is changing, which dictates
that social control efforts must adapt. Anticipating the future enables effective planning, and the
onus is on law enforcement officials, regulators, politicians, corporations, and society in general
in all countries to help confront corporate crime.
Several commenters have offered their thoughts on how to best address corporate crime in the
future. For instance, Berger (2011) noted that there needs to be a greater societal emphasis on ethics and professionalism; and regulatory, political, and media reform with the goal of making corporations more accountable and law-abiding. Others suggested that a multi-pronged approach is
needed to ensure trust in the free enterprise system, and to promote fair and balanced corporate
practices in the US. Such an approach, it is argued, should include corporate managers making
proactive efforts to discourage misbehavior, stricter accounting systems, stronger governance
systems, and more effective sentencing practices, such as more freely imposing prison sentences
upon corporate offenders (Ivancevich et al., 2003). Reactive techniques have been ineffective in
meeting the goals of deterrence and punishment (Meeks, 2006).
Technological changes must also be anticipated in efforts to enforce corporate crime. The
ease with which corporations interact with other corporations, political leaders, and consumers
in various countries is unprecedented, facilitating the spread of corporate crime. Technology
and its advancement create new avenues for crime. Technological advancements also generate
new avenues for enforcement. Investigations are facilitated, for instance, through more effective
analyses of more easily attainable data and technological devices that improve upon historical enforcement practices. For example, advancements in night vision and other detectionenhancing products assist regulators with regard to the illegal dumping of hazardous waste.
Future efforts directed toward the enforcement of corporate crime may be enhanced through
more freely using the criminal law to address corporate harms, and using the threat of adverse
publicity. Corporations rely heavily on their images and reputations (Burns, 1999), and thus
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R. Burns
drawing substantial negative attention to corporations engaged in illegal behavior could go far
toward discouraging such practices (e.g., Braithwaite and Geis, 1982; Gallo, 1998).
Unfortunately, there is no single means by which effective change can occur. Various proactive efforts in several areas of regulation, law enforcement, legislation, politics, and other areas are
needed. Each proposed approach to combat corporate crime must be considered with regard to
resources, context, societal change, the need to balance enforcement with regulation, operationalization, and avoiding over-regulation.
Progress toward more effective enforcement of corporate crime has occurred, for instance,
with the crackdown on corporate crime around the turn of the twenty-first century. The hope
is that the many challenges and obstacles experienced in the past may be overcome. Society is
changing at a rapid pace, which provides both optimism and pessimism regarding the enforcement of corporate crime. On an international level, the US is not alone with regard to its limited
response to corporate crime.
Enforcing corporate crime globally
The large majority of studies on corporate crime have focused on issues within the boundaries of
nation-states, which, in today’s society, “is misleading and potentially dangerous” (Wonders and
Danner, 2002, p. 166). Among other limitations, the lack of an international focus on corporate
crime neglects the globalism of many leading corporations, and the expected continuation of
globalism in general.
The many limitations of current efforts to address corporate crime globally include a lack of
cooperation among law enforcement and regulatory agencies in different countries, jurisdictional
issues, political pressures, differing bodies of laws, international relations, different levels of interest
in doing so, and varying degrees of resources. There is no global law enforcement or regulatory agency, although INTERPOL and the United Nations seem well positioned to oversee and
respond to harmful corporate behaviors of a global nature. These groups, however, suffer several
significant challenges in doing so, which is unfortunate, as commerce, travel, communication,
business, and crime are increasingly becoming international in nature.
Comparatively, many other countries face the same difficulties as the US. China, for example,
is the world’s most populous country and has become the world’s fastest growing major economy.
Like the US, China lacks large, systematic data sources on corporate crime and an unwillingness to fund major studies in the area. Accordingly, corporate crimes remain hidden from the
general public due to the country not wanting the image of being rife with upper-class crime,
and because government officials may very well be involved in the crimes personally and do not
wish to draw attention to them (Ghazi-Tehrani et al., 2013). The country, amidst its phenomenal
growth, lacks coordinated efforts and resources to control corporate crime, for instance, as they
pertain to the production and distribution of counterfeit goods. Strong political connections
with business leaders, jurisdictional problems, and untamed environmental harms largely challenge the country. Much like the US, China’s economic interests have often outweighed concerns
for corporate crime (Ghazi-Tehrani et al., 2013).
In discussing how China can best address corporate crime as its economy and population
continues to grow, Ghazi-Tehrani and colleagues (2013, p. 256) noted that the country would
benefit from “increased and better-coordinated enforcement than by adding more unenforced
laws.” They added that of equal importance, China should collaborate and coordinate with other
countries and third-party organizations to help ensure better regulation. Standing in the way
of progress in these areas, they noted, is the country’s need to balance enforcement efforts with
concern for the country’s continued growth.
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Corporate crimes and enforcement
Corporate crime is and has been a notable social problem. Enforcement efforts in the area
have improved throughout history, although many challenges remain. The problems associated
with corporate crime and the relatively limited enforcement responses to it are not confined to
the US, as other countries, including China, face similar difficulties with regard to corporate
crime and its enforcement. In fact, efforts to “scare,” “force,” or “threaten” corporations into
operating within the boundaries of the law have been limited in their effectiveness, as they may
work under some conditions and with some organizations.
Understanding why individuals and organizations engage in corporate crime and recognizing
the limitations of efforts to control these crimes provide a foundation for further discussion of
what may be done to better address these crimes. It is hoped that we can build on the present
work and make progress in several areas, for instance, by encouraging corporations to view social
control efforts as something other than impediments to the “bottom line.” Further, we can work
toward promoting and establishing corporate cultures of compliance in which socially responsible behavior becomes the sine qua non. Ultimately, however, it is much easier to write about
changing corporate cultures than it is to actually change them.
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