We are only weeks away from the 60th birthday of the phrase "white-collar crime", but the label has so much work to do now, there is no prospect of it going into retirement. Since the American sociologist Edwin H Sutherland coined the phrase in his 1939 presidential address to the American Sociological Society, there has been a growing social awareness that not all crime is committed by working-class men who hold cigarettes between thumb and index finger and look furtively over their shoulders.
A great deal of evidence now suggests that white-collar and corporate crimes hurt, kill, misappropriate, pollute, deceive, defraud and despoil on a much higher scale than ordinary crime. For many, therefore, the revelation last week that many white-collar criminals refuse to accept they have done anything really wrong is quite galling.
The disclosure was made at the British Psychological Society's division of criminological and legal psychology annual conference in Durham. Research by Sara Willott from Coventry University has found that many professionals thought that they were morally superior to "common criminals".
The effect of white-collar crimes is gigantic when compared to ordinary crime. Yet the law, policing, investigation and sentencing in these areas are notably weak in contrast to how ordinary crime is dealt with.
One Home Office document has estimated that "the overall cost of juvenile crime is probably in the region of pounds 4bn a year". This was regarded as sufficiently alarming to warrant the promulgation of legislation with a panoply of new measures, including parental control orders and the lowering of the ordinary age of criminal responsibility to ten. Yet there is much more to worry about in relation to white-collar offences, which commentators have estimated costs society between two and ten times the amount lost in ordinary crime.
Professor Michael Levi, for example, found that the total cost of fraud reported to fraud squads in 1985 was pounds 2113m, about twice that of theft, burglary and robbery in the same year. The American criminologist J E Conklin estimated that in the USA, robbery, theft, and vehicle theft cost $3 to 4bn in 1977, compared to the $40bn attributable to white-collar crime.
One major problem with white-collar crime is that the public rarely sees it as being as serious as "real" crime, even when the consequences of corporate delinquency are the same as those of personal offending.
In 1996, for example, 22,400 people suffered from serious, life-threatening assaults. By contrast, 29,475 employees and members of the public suffered major injuries at work. Such injuries include loss of an eye and amputation. Health and Safety Executive reports have shown that a high proportion of such incidents are preventable and attributable to management failures.
Similarly, whereas in 1995-96 there were about 180 cases of reckless manslaughter, 290 employees and members of the public were killed at work. Research has suggested that as many as 20 per cent of such workplace deaths result from gross negligence (workers are seven times more likely to be killed at work than by homicide). Moreover, more than 10,000 people die annually from work-related chronic conditions such as mesothelioma and pneumoconiosis.
Corporate dishonesty and wrong-doing can be vast. When BCCI was exposed in 1991 for fraudulent practices entailing sums of up to pounds 15bn, there was perhaps little public doubt about the organisation's criminality. Local authorities in Britain lost in the region of pounds 100m. It is often difficult to appreciate the scale of the wrongdoing because each victim only loses a relatively small sum. As the criminologist, Steven Box, once observed, the public understands more easily what it means for an old lady to have pounds 5 snatched from her purse than to grasp the financial significance of 25 million customers paying one penny more for orange juice diluted beyond the limit permitted by law.
A teenager who drives his car with reckless disregard for the safety of others may hurt one or two people, or six if he careers into a bus queue, but a reckless water company or pharmaceutical corporation can injure hundreds or thousands of people through one episode of criminal negligence.
CS Lewis once wrote that the greatest wrongs are not done by people from "sordid dens of crime" but are conceived and ordered in clean, carpeted offices "by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails". How far public intolerance of such wrong will grow as we move into the next millennium remains to be seen.
Dr Gary Slapper is director of the Law Programme at the Open University. `Corporate Crime' by Dr Gary Slapper and Professor Steve Tombs is published soon by Addison Wesley Longman, pounds 13.99