The true costs of crime are difficult to calculate.  Different types of crimes inflict substantially varying societal costs.  Violent crimes alone cost Americans about $50 billion dollars a year according to a report from the Center for American Progress.1  It is estimated that the costs of pain and suffering borne by the victims of violence are several times higher than this $50 billion figure.1


There is no doubt that violent crime in the US is a major problem.  Murder is certainly not a uniquely American act, but as in other things, we Americans excel at it.  The U.S. murder rate is nearly three times the rate that it is in Canada and more than four times the rate that it is in the United Kingdom.1  And although violent crime captures our attention and makes us fear one another, its relative economic impact is perhaps one half the cost of so called “White-Collar” crimes committed by our affluent brethren.   Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) estimates of white-collar crime come in at $300 billion dollars a year.2  Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme alone was estimated to cost his investors somewhere in the range of $50 billion dollars.3  And what was the cost to the American Taxpayers for the 2008 Financial Crisis?  An article in Bloomberg Businessweek tallies the total costs to American taxpayers at $12.8 trillion.  What portion of that cost could be attributed to white-collar crime?


Granted, the crisis was caused by numerous factors including pressures in the 1990s on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from Clinton Administration officials to increase national home ownership rates,4 as well as the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act (eliminating banking barriers allowing banks to be both investment and depository banks).  But opaquely risky mortgage-backed securities (MBSs) and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) were sold around the world with little understanding of the associated risks.  These CDOs and MBSs essentially bundled bad debts in the form of subprime mortgages that were sold to people for homes that they could not afford.  Then the housing bubble burst and upwards of 27 million mortgages5 had been issued for homes whose values were well below the debt obligation and ballooning payments forced many Americans to default.  This perfect storm of contributing factors was a product of greed, deregulation, lack of understanding of risk due to the complex nature of financial derivatives, and so on.  But it was also, as seems evident today, a product of criminal behavior.  In a 2010 New York Times article by Peter Henning it was reported that:


At a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, Senator Ted Kaufman of Delaware summed up the frustration on Capitol Hill with the lack of any identifiable villains for the financial troubles of the last two years. “We have seen very little in the way of senior officer or boardroom-level prosecutions of the people on Wall Street who brought this country to the brink of financial ruin,” Mr. Kaufman said. “Why is that?”


Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle of the Federal District Court in Washington expressed similar frustration with the settlement between the Securities and Exchange Commission and Citigroup over the bank’s misstatements in 2007 regarding its exposure to subprime mortgage-backed securities. In its complaint, the S.E.C. refers repeatedly to “senior management” receiving information about increased losses in its portfolio from problems with subprime mortgages, but none were named in its complaint.


The United State’s prisons are filled with “criminals” because politicians have to take a “tough on crime” stand in order to get elected by their constituents, us; however, we must take a closer look at who in particular resides in our prisons and assess to what degree these white collar and corporate criminals are actually held to account.


According to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), at years end in 2011 over 6,977,700 adults were under correctional supervision or in jail or in prison.   About 4,814,200 offenders were supervised in the community on probation or parole.   About 2,239,800 were incarcerated in state or federal prisons or local jails.   According to a report from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in 2010, just under 71,000 juvenile offenders were held in residential placement facilities. These are big numbers, but let’s put them in relative terms.  From a recent BJS Report:


  • About 2.9% of adults in the U.S. (or 1 in every 34 adults) were under some form of correctional supervision at year end 2011, a rate comparable to 1998 (1 in every 34).
  • About 1 in every 107 adults was incarcerated in prison or jail.


How does this compare to other nations?  Our incarceration rates far outpace any other modern industrial nation and are only comparable to the pre World War II rates in the Soviet Union’s Gulag system.  From the National Council on Crime and Delinquency Fact Sheet (2006):


  • The US rate of incarceration is the highest in the world.
  • The US has less than 5% of the world’s population but over 23% of the worlds incarcerated people. 
  • Compared to the world’s other most populous countries, the 2.2 million people currently incarcerated in the US is 153% higher than Russia, 505% higher than Brazil, 550% higher than India, and over 2,000% higher than Indonesia, Bangladesh, or Nigeria (ICPS, 2006). 


According to a breakdown of the Federal and State Prisoner Population from, in 2008 violent criminals accounted for about 47% of the total State and Federal Prison Population, while drug offenders constituted 22%, property thieves made up 17%, drunk drivers, immigration offenders, and other public order offenders accounted for 12%, and juveniles and other unspecified offenders made up the remaining 1%.  These numbers were derived from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.  There is no category for white-collar crime; although, within the property crime statistics, at the Federal level, there is a category listed as fraud. But even in these Federal Prisons, the number of people convicted of fraud is a fraction of 6%, or well under 11,000 Federal Penitentiary inhabitants.


Now let’s look at incarceration rates by race and ethnicity.  Again from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2010, White males were incarcerated at the rate of 678 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents of the same race and gender.  Using the same relative comparison groups, Hispanic males were incarcerated at the rate of 1,755 inmates per 100,000 Hispanic males and black (non-Hispanic) males were incarcerated at the rate of 4,347 inmates per 100,000 black males.  African Americans (13% of the US Population) make up about 40% of the prison population and Hispanics (16.7% of the US Population) account for about 20% according to 2010 US Census Data.  These rates are hugely disproportionate.  Let’s contrast this data to the following information on white-collar crime from the U.S. Department of Justice,  Federal Bureau of Investigation, Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division:


The [National Incident Based Reporting System] (NIBRS) data for 1997 through 1999 show white-collar crime offenders are, on average, in their late-twenties to early-thirties, which is only slightly older than most other offenders captured in NIBRS. The majority of white-collar crime offenders are white males, except for those who committed embezzlement. However, in comparison to offenders committing property crimes, there is a higher proportion of females committing these white-collar offenses.


…much of the investigation and regulation of corporate white-collar crime is left to regulatory agencies and professional associations (American Medical Association, American Bar Association, etc.) and not to the police or other law enforcement agencies. White-collar offenses, in these cases, probably will be reported to the [Unifrom Crime Reports] (UCR) Program only if criminal charges are filed, which is extremely rare in instances of corporate crime. Corporate crime is usually handled within the regulatory agency (sanctions, cease-and-desist orders, etc.), or corporations are made the subject of civil cases.


A quote from Noam Chomsky seems appropriate here:


“For the powerful, crimes are those that others commit.”



So, is it that Corporate Crime and other forms of white-collar crime fall largely outside the scope of the law?  Not entirely.  Individuals like Bernie Madoff, whose crimes cost his wealthy customers a great deal, are in prison.  But what about Corporate criminals?  Here is a case in point recently reported by Christina Rexrode and Larry Neumeister in the Associated Press, where corporate criminals are seemingly given a GET OUT OF JAIL FREE card.


When the Justice Department announced its record $1.9 billion settlement against British bank HSBC last week, prosecutors called it a powerful blow to a dysfunctional institution accused of laundering money for Iran, Libya and Mexico’s murderous drug cartels.


But to some former federal prosecutors, it was only the latest case of the government stopping short of bringing criminal money laundering charges against a big bank or its executives, at least in part on the rationale that such prosecutions could be devastating enough to cause such banks to fail.


They say it sounds a lot like the “too big to fail” meme that kept big but sickly banks alive on the support of taxpayer-funded bailouts. In these cases, they call it, “Too big to jail.”

get out of jail free card


Something seems askew here.  These disproportionate incarceration rates go hand in glove with the prejudice directed toward the poor and non-whites in our communities.  How is it that American’s give corporate criminals a pass and at the same time celebrate liberty and freedom while incarcerating the poor and our minority citizens at rates that typify the Soviet Gulag?  This all drips of palpable hypocrisy.  The economic costs alone seem to justify a colossal reorganization of our priorities.


As Conservatives and Liberals battle contentiously over important issues, it seems to me that the vitriolic banter just keeps the American eye off the factors that truly harm us.  A couple points are clear to me.  First, as long as corporations have legal rights as individuals, but limited accountability, and secondly, as long as money equates to political power, things will not change.  As we bicker over ideological perspectives that define the political poles, and as Americans direct blame and scorn toward the people at the lowest end of the economic spectrum, we miss the true essence of who is entitled and who is TRULY destroying this great nation.




1. Shapiro, R. J., and Hassett, K. A., (2012).   The Economic Benefits of Reducing Violent Crime: A Case Study of 8 American Cities.  Center for American Progress.


2. Cornell Law School. White Collar Crime


3. Lenzner, R. (2008).   Bernie Madoff’s $50 Billion Ponzi Scheme.


4. Holmes, Steven A. (September 30, 1999). “Fannie Mae Eases Credit To Aid Mortgage Lending”. The New York Times


5. Wallison, P. (2011).  The True Story of the Financial Crisis.  The American Spectator: