White-collar crime not seen as wrong

Click to follow
LAWYERS, ACCOUNTANTS and other middle-class professional men convicted of fraud refuse to accept they have done anything wrong, a new study suggests.

Instead, they tend to believe that they are morally superior to "common criminals" and argue that they are stealing to provide money for their families, or to keep their businesses and staff afloat. They also blame envy among middle-class "little people" or "boys" in the criminal justice system for dragging them down. Prison is seen as a place for working-class villains - "it's like Dante's Inferno", said one.

The findings, revealed at the British Psychological Society's division of criminological and legal psychology annual conference in Durham, followed interviews with 20 convicted upper-middle-class men, all aged 40 and above, including accountants, solicitors, lawyers and vets. Many of the offenders, who are in prison or on probation, ran their own firms or with senior partners.

One man said he would not return to work for less than pounds 40,000 to pounds 50,000.

Comments by the offenders made during the interviews included discussion about life in prison. "Francis" said: "You become `a criminal'. You are taken down and you are put in a cell. And you can't sit down in that cell - there's nowhere to sit - and someone will say `Are'll bring you a cuppa tea in a minute' (in a growling Cockney accent) and you wait half an hour."

"Lawrence": "So you read the graffiti."

"Rupert": "Smasher woz 'ere, 1982." [In a Cockney accent.]

"Lawrence": "That's right, and the spelling is wonderful."

"Francis": "And you've got great butch female prison warders ... it's like going into the maelstrom, it's dreadful ... It's like Dante's Inferno."

Sara Willott, a lecturer at Coventry University's Psychology Department, said that the men justified their crimes in a number of ways.

"They believe it's different from blue-collar crime. They account for the crimes saying: `It was a genuine need', `I was sucked into something again', and that it was `not selfish'."

"They also don't admit stealing. Instead, they might say `I dug into the funds'."

She added: "They believe they should be judged on a different basis. They were different to other inmates. They see themselves as morally superior and perfectly reasonable people." Ms Willott said the men considered themselves "super-providers", having responsibility not only for their immediate family but for employees as well.

Commenting on his responsibilities, one convict said: "I think that is a strong factor, because although my family's grown-up now, at the time this had happened I had a young family. Then you look to your staff, who in turn have got responsibilities and young families themselves."

"Owen" added: "My crime was taking money, not for my personal benefit, but for the benefit of the others to keep the firm going.

On maintaining their social standing, "Francis" said: "There is tremendous pressure on all of us to keep a standing and to keep a sort of presence, you know, among your peers."

People who undermine them and were involved in their convictions were often referred to as "little boys." Time in prison was considered a working- class experience.

Ms Willott concluded that the upper-middle-class offenders were "able to retain the moral high ground despite entering the alien working-class under- world of prison."