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Corporate Crime and the State

Summary and Keywords

State-corporate crime is defined as 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. This concept has been advanced to examine how corporations and governments intersect to produce social harm. The complexity of state-corporate crime arises from the nature of the offenses; unlike traditional “street crime,” state-corporate crime is not characterized by the intent of a single actor to violate the law for personal pleasure or gain. Criminal actions by the state often lack an obvious victim, and diffusion of responsibility arising from corporate structure and involvement of multiple actors makes the task of attributing criminal responsibility difficult. Sufficient understanding of state-corporate crime cannot be gained through studying individual actors; one must also consider broader organizational and societal factors.

Further subclassification illuminates the different types of state-corporate crime: State-initiated corporate crime (such as the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion) occurs when corporations, employed by the government, engage in organizational deviance at the direction of, or with the tacit approval of, the government. State-facilitated state-corporate crime (such as the 1991 Imperial Food Products fire in Hamlet, North Carolina) occurs when government regulatory institutions fail to restrain deviant activities either because of direct collusion between business and government or because they adhere to shared goals whose attainment would be hampered by aggressive regulation.

Keywords: white-collar crime, corporate crime, state crime, government, Karl Marx, Ron Kramer, Ray Michalowski, state-corporate crime

State-corporate crimes are “illegal or socially injurious actions that result from a mutually reinforcing interaction between (1) policies and/or practices in pursuit of the goals of one or more institutions of political governance and (2) policies and/or practices in pursuit of the goals of one or more institutions of economic production and distribution” (Aulette & Michalowski, 1993, p. 175).

Edwin Sutherland’s original 1939 conception of white-collar crime as “a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation” has spawned decades of study and further subcategorization of nonviolent, profit-motivated crimes. Conceptual differences between occupational crime, crimes committed for the benefit of the offending individual, and corporate crimes, crimes committed for the benefit of the corporation, were important to delineate (Clinard & Quinney, 1973; Coleman, 1987). Examples of corporate crimes include accounting scandals (“cooking the books”), industrial espionage, and corruption.

Corporate crimes, similar to traditional crimes, generally go against the public good and are assumed to be prohibited, regulated, investigated, or otherwise prevented by regulatory and law enforcement agencies (Kramer, 1990; Michalowski, 1985). However, there remain instances where corporate and governmental interests align to produce or tacitly allow crime. A tax-strapped state, for example, might be laxer on environmental or worker safety standards in a bid to be more “pro-business.” The overlapping interests produce state-corporate crimes, such as the 1991 Imperial Foods chicken-processing plant fire in Hamlet, North Carolina, and the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

Theoretical Background

Karl Marx’s seminal text Das Kapital (1967) aimed to reveal the economic patterns underpinning the capitalist mode of production, in contrast to the theories of classical political economists, such as Adam Smith, Jean-Baptiste Say, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill. Marx proposed that the motivating force of capitalism is the exploitation of labor, whose unpaid work is the ultimate source of surplus value. The owner of the means of production is able to claim the right to this surplus value because he or she is legally protected by the ruling regime through property rights and the legally established distribution of shares, which are by law to be distributed only to company owners and their board members.

Although Marx never covered crime directly in Das Kapital, he argued that the law is the mechanism by which one social class keeps all the other classes in a disadvantaged position. Marxist criminologists William Chambliss and Richard Quinney have followed this line of reasoning to focus on why things change, identifying the disruptive forces in industrialized societies and describing how society is divided by power, wealth, prestige, and the perceptions of the world. “The shape and character of the legal system in complex societies can be understood as deriving from the conflicts inherent in the structure of these societies which are stratified economically and politically” (Chambliss & Seidman, 1971, p. 3).

Marxist criminology is concerned with the causal relationships between society and crime, in order to understand how the structural social environment gives rise to crime and criminogenic conditions and to explain why some acts are defined as deviant. State-corporate crime relies on conceptual underpinnings from both Sutherland and Marx, but it is most strongly related to the work of Quinney.

Quinney, and his dissertation advisor Marshall Clinard (himself a former student of Sutherland), were the first to suggest the conceptual differences between occupational and corporate crime: “Occupational crime consists of offenses committed by individuals for them- selves in the course of their occupations and the offenses of employees against their employers. Corporate crime consists of the offenses committed by corporate officials for their corporation and the offenses of the corporation itself” (Clinard & Quinney, 1973, p. 188). This distinction allowed for a more critical look at these high-status offenses. Prior to the 1970s, scholarship on white-collar crime focused on individuals responsible within corporations, but Clinard and Quinney (1973, p. 221) suggested that not just the individual executives were responsible, but that the corporation itself had a role as an economic and political entity:

Criminal law alone does not assure compliance as long as those corporations that are controlled exercise political control and influence over regulatory agencies and courts. What is needed is greater political control by the public over the corporations and their power and influence in the political economy. And only with basic changes in the culture and structure of American society will there be a solution to corporate crime.

Marxist criminology (also referred to as radical criminology and critical criminology) thus argues that not only is the enforcement of laws subject to corporate influence, but also the social process of naming crime is significantly shaped by those who enjoyed the economic and political power to ensure that the naming of crime in most instances will reflect, or at least not seriously threaten, their worldview and interests.

This use of power for economic gain has been studied at depth in the past, most notably by Calavita, Tillman, and Pontell (1997) after the United States savings and loans crisis of the 1980s. Their seminal work and past studies of the same event have shown the state to be “selective” in its legal response (Calavita & Pontell, 1994; Calavita, Tillman, & Pontell, 1997; Pontell, Calavita, & Tillman, 1994). Calavita and Pontell (1994, p. 305) posited that the state has a weaker response to “social” regulations, “such as occupational safety and health standards, which are aimed at controlling production processes,” and a relatively stronger response to “economic” regulations, “such as insider trading restrictions, which regulate the market and stabilize the economy.” Earlier studies (Barnett, 1979; Calavita, 1983; Snider, 1991; Yeager, 1993) revealed that the lax response to social regulations is tied to the capital-accumulation function of the state. There are occasional attempts to “shore up worker safety, reduce environmental hazards, or enforce labor standards” (Calavita & Pontell, 1994, p. 306), but only when the other function of the state, legitimization, is threatened by a sufficiently powerful political movement (O’Connor, 1973). Legitimacy can be defined as “the capacity of the system to engender and maintain the belief that the existing political institutions are the most appropriate ones for the society” (Lipset, 1981, p. 84).

Conceptualizing State-Corporate Crime and Discussion of the Literature

Crime, in its most simple terms, is an activity prohibited by the state. There is no inherent value or moral judgment attached to defining an activity as criminal; while morality has traditionally shaped laws (for example, shifting views on same-sex marriage resulted in shifting legal status), Quinney argued that “crime is a definition of human conduct that is created by authorized agents in a politically organized state” (1970, p. 15). Then, state-corporate crime is paradoxically an activity allowed by the state, or “not-crime,” either due to the activity’s remaining legal or its being illegal and the law’s being under-enforced or not enforced by the government. The study of this type of not-crime crime is important, because the nexus between economic and political interest can result in cases of severe injury, death, environmental damage, and financial loss for victims while simultaneous shielding those responsible from both blame and prosecution.

Ron Kramer and Ray Michalowski (1990) created and defined state-corporate crime in their seminal theoretical presentation at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology, but it was Kramer’s (1992) individual work, “The Space Shuttle Challenger Explosion: A Case Study of State-Corporate Crime,” that provided the first case study of the phenomenon.

The Challenger Explosion

On January 28, 1986, the NASA Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members. The spacecraft fell to pieces over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida. Disintegration of the vehicle began after an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster failed at liftoff. The O-ring was not designed to fly under unusually cold conditions, such as occurred with this launch. The O-ring failure caused a breach in the rocket booster joint it sealed, allowing pressurized burning gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside near the external fuel tank. This led to the separation of the right-side rocket booster’s joint attachment and the structural failure of the external tank.

The accident was clearly the result of both political pressures and corporate greed, the intersection where state-corporate crime is born. Challenger had been scheduled to launch on January 22, then on January 23, 24, 25, 27, and finally on January 28. The repeated scheduling and canceling due to bad weather resulted in a conference call between NASA and contractor company Morton-Thiokol to determine the viability of a January 28 launch. Forecasts for that day predicted an unusually cold morning, with temperatures close to −1° C (30° F), the minimum temperature permitted for launch. The Shuttle was never certified to operate in temperatures that low. The O-rings, as well as many other critical components, had no test data to support any expectation of a successful launch in such conditions.

Months before, in October 1985, an engineer at Morton-Thiokol wrote a memo entitled “Help!” that listed concerns regarding low temperatures and O-rings. After the engineering team agreed that a launch risked disaster, Morton-Thiokol immediately called NASA recommending a postponement until temperatures rose in the afternoon. Morton-Thiokol management initially supported its engineers’ recommendation to postpone the launch, but NASA staff opposed a delay. During the conference call, NASA engineer George Hardy told Morton-Thiokol, “I am appalled. I am appalled by your recommendation.” NASA manager Lawrence Mulloy said, “My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch—next April?”

After the explosion, the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, or “Rogers Commission,” was formed to investigate the disaster. The commission’s report considered the contributing causes of the accident. Most salient was the failure of both NASA and Morton-Thiokol to respond adequately to the danger posed by the deficient joint design. Rather than redesigning the joint, they came to define the problem as an acceptable flight risk. The report found that managers at NASA had known about the flawed design since 1977, but never discussed the problem outside their reporting channels with Morton-Thiokol; this was a serious violation of NASA regulations. When it became apparent how serious the flaw was, no one at NASA considered grounding the shuttles until a fix could be implemented—in fact, NASA managers went as far as to issue and waive six launch constraints related to the O-rings. The commission’s report also strongly criticized the decision-making process that led to the launch of Challenger, saying that it was seriously flawed.

Because NASA (state) and Morton-Thiokol (corporate) had worked together to produce a disaster, the disaster reflects Kramer’s (1990, p. 1) conception of state-corporate crime:

State-corporate crime is defined as an illegal or socially injurious social action that is the collective product of the interaction between a business corporation and a state agency engaged in a joint endeavor. These crimes involve the active participation of two or more organizations, at least one of which is private and one of which is public. They are the harmful result of an interorganizational relationship between business and government.

State-Initiated Versus State-Facilitated Corporate Crime

Although Kramer’s (1990) original definition of state-corporate crime allowed for a new, critical look at the motivations and potential crimes of private-public partnerships, the theoretical underpinning of Kramer’s conception was advanced tremendously through Aulette and Michalowski’s (1993) examination of the 1991 fire at the Imperial Foods chicken processing plant. While the lessons of the Challenger explosion emphasized the central and direct role of the state in initiating a cooperative activity involving both government and business that led to a deviant outcome, the 1991 fire suggested a different kind of relationship, one where government omissions permit corporations to pursue illegal and potentially harmful courses of action that, in a general way, facilitate the fulfillment of certain state policies.

Aulette and Michalowski (1993, p. 175) defined state-corporate crime as:

Illegal or socially injurious actions that result from a mutually reinforcing interaction between (1) policies and/or practices in pursuit of the goals of one or more institutions of political governance and (2) policies and/or practices in pursuit of the goals of one or more institutions of economic production and distribution.

This definition led Aulette and Michalowski (1993) to argue that state-corporate crime has two different forms. State-initiated corporate crime occurs when corporations conduct illegal acts at the direction of, or with the approval of, the government, such as the events leading up to the Challenger explosion. State-facilitated corporate crime occurs when government regulatory institutions fail to restrain illegal business activities, either because the government is working in collusion with the corporation or the government’s interests are also being advanced, such as in the Imperial Foods fire.

The Imperial Foods Fire

On September 3, 1991, a failure in a hydraulic line cause a fire at the Imperial Foods chicken processing in Hamlet, North Carolina. This particular processing plant kept its doors and windows locked in an effort to cut down on employee theft and product contamination, and because workers were locked in the factory, 25 workers were killed and 55 more were injured in the fire. While the plant had received regular food safety inspections from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), in 11 years of operation, the plant had never received an inspection by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The factory exterior was constructed with bricks and metalwork; the interior was a “maze of large rooms separated by moveable walls” that meant both workers and the product moved through the building from front to rear. Due to the roaming nature of the workers’ duties, Imperial’s operators kept the doors of the plant locked and the windows boarded in order to prevent theft, vandalism, and other criminal acts.

In the years before the fire, North Carolina had slashed its OSHA budget, so the Imperial plant had never been inspected for worker safety. Although the USDA sent a poultry inspector daily, and he knew about the fire code violations at the plant, the inspector reported his feeling that such the code violations were not under his regulatory jurisdiction. Furthermore, the plant had had three previous fires, it had no fire alarm system, and it had no fire-suppression sprinklers.

There were 90 employees in the facility at the time of the fire, which began when a 25-foot deep fat fryer vat spontaneously ignited at around 8:30 a.m. Large quantities of smoke were produced by the combination of burning soybean oil, burning chicken, and melting roof insulation. The majority of the employees who escaped unharmed were workers in the front of the building, who left through the unlocked main entrance, but most workers were trapped by a curtain of smoke. Others tried to escape through the locked doors by attempting to kick them down, but without success.

The criminal investigation launched during the fire’s aftermath found indentations left on at least one door by people attempting to kick it down, plus concentrations of bodies around fire exits and inside a large walk-in freezer where panicked workers had sought shelter. The investigation produced a 10-point final report, which included numerous food safety recommendations for corporations as well policy recommendations for the government. The report recommended that, first, state and federal inspectors should be cross-trained, to avoid problems like the USDA inspector’s failure to report the OSHA violations. Second, industry employees should have a “worry free” line of communication in order to relay concerns to proper authorities; numerous workers had been wary of the Imperial plant’s locked doors and windows, but they felt powerless. Third, the number of OSHA inspectors should be increased. Fourth, emergency exit drills should be a mandatory requirement for industry.

Theoretical Integration

In their 1990 paper, Kramer and Michalowski summarized three theoretical approaches to the study of corporate crime, each of which corresponds to a different level of analysis and policy approach. Interestingly, the first theoretical approach drew from Sutherland’s (1940) differential association theory, at the individual level. The second theoretical approach described corporate crime at the organizational level, and it argued that organizations themselves can be criminogenic through an overemphasis on production and profit (Kramer, 1982) or through substandard practices (Hopkins, 1978). The final approach focused on the criminogenic forces of political and economic structures themselves, mainly focusing on capitalist societies (Michalowski, 1985; Quinney, 1977).

Kramer and Michalowski (1990) argued that the three approaches could be brought together in a harmonious, integrated theoretical framework and offer a top-down, formulaic description of organizational deviance. At the macro level, political and economic interests shape the goals, means, and constraints of political and economic organizations. At the organizational level, interactions with political and economic entities above the organization and the actions of the individuals within the organization are shaped by the social conditions, norms, and mores of the organization. At the individual level, differential association theory predicts that employees give meaning to their experiences through the social interactions within their organization.

The new, combined framework allowed Kramer and Michalowski (1990) to describe three “catalysts for action:” motivation or performance pressure, opportunity structure, and the operationality of control. This theoretical framework is based on the proposition that criminal or deviant behavior at the organizational level results from a combination of pressure for goal attainment, the availability and perceived attractiveness of illegitimate means, and an absence of effective social control.

The first catalyst shares the theoretical underpinnings of Coleman’s (1987) “culture of competition.” The culture of competition emphasizes individual achievement and the pursuit of wealth and status, which became an increasingly important motivation starting in the 17th century, as capitalism and social mobility grew. In the United States, for example, “hyper capitalism” (Currie, 2013) promotes the acquisition of wealth above all else. With internalized individual pressure to succeed, an organizational culture built around goal attainment, and political and economic structures that reward success, deviant organizational practices become not only possible, but expected.

The second catalyst draws on Durkheim (1893), Merton (1938), and Messner and Rosenfeld’s (2012) conceptions of “anomie.” This catalyst suggests that societies where legitimate means to pursue goals are scarce will have more organizational deviance. Deviant alternative routes will become increasingly attractive as legitimate opportunities are limited.

Last, social control in a society will serve as a restraint on organizational deviance while also promoting pro-social individual morals. Societies with higher levels of social control will see higher compliance with laws and regulations, due to both pro-social organizational and personal views.

When all three catalysts are present in a society, state-corporate crime not only should be expected, but also should be expected at a high frequency. While the United States certainly qualifies (since the United States evidences high emphasis on goal achievement at all levels, offers limited legitimate opportunities at both societal and organizational levels, and lacks social controls for elite deviance), perhaps no country better exemplifies these overlapping factors than the People’s Republic of China in the early 21st century.

It is important to note that China describes its own economic structure as a “socialist market economy” that is different from both traditional socialist and market economies. The system is based on the predominance of public ownership and state-owned enterprises within a market economy. While the Chinese economy maintains a large state sector, the state-owned enterprises operate like private-sector firms and retain all profits without remitting them to the government. Thus, the Chinese economic system does not constitute a form of socialism, whether socialism is defined as a planned economy where production for use has replaced production for profit as the driving force behind economic activity, or socialism is defined as a system where the working class is the dominant class that controls the surplus value produced by the economy. Given this context, while China is unique, China also falls victim to the same profit-motivated offenses seen in the United States and throughout the West.

The 2008 Melamine Scandal

On September 11, 2008, the Chinese government announced that a large amount of the nation’s supply of infant formula was tainted with the industrial chemical melamine, which causes kidney stones, and sometimes death, if consumed in large quantities. Approximately 300,000 infants were affected by the dangerous products and at least six babies were confirmed to have died from consuming the tainted formula (Ghazi-Tehrani & Pontell, 2015).

Only a year before the melamine milk scandal broke, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao had authorized the use of $1.1 billion U.S. and 300,000 inspectors to regulate and inspect the food industry. The resulting 4-month sweep of the food industries in China resulted in 1,187 criminal investigations opened, 300 drug makers shuttered, 192,400 unlicensed food shops closed, and 1,400 substandard slaughterhouses shut down. After the inspections, in May 2008, the State General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) reported that the milk industry was one of the safest in China and that 99% of the companies passed safety inspections for their infant milk formula (Ghazi-Tehrani & Pontell, 2015).

After the melamine scandal, in September 2008, the AQSIQ again inspected 1,548 dairy companies and revealed that perhaps as many as 372 milk collection stations had been adding melamine to milk since April 2005. The agency tested 491 different batches of formula from 109 different companies and found that 22 companies, including government-sanctioned Chinese National Brands (Sanlu Group, Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial Group Company, Mengniu Dairy, and Shanghai Bright Dairy & Food Company), were manufacturing and selling melamine-tainted products. That meant nearly 20% of all available infant formula in China was toxic to the babies drinking it. The scandal made it apparent that there were large regulatory problems throughout the Chinese dairy industry (Ghazi-Tehrani & Pontell, 2015).

In the years prior to the public announcement, the government attempted to censor the media in order to avoid making the case public knowledge. In 2005 and 2006, Jiang Weisuo, a worker at the northwest Chinese Shaanxi Jinqiao Dairy Company, claimed unsafe chemicals were being added to the company’s competitor’s milk products. He reported this to both regulators and management at the guilty dairy companies. They all said they would look into it, but there was never any result. He passed the information on to China Central Television, which aired a report that detailed the adulteration. During the broadcast, the channel included video of the unsafe chemicals being added to milk; however, the Shaanxi Quality and Technical Supervision Bureau declared the milk production process safe and legal (Ghazi-Tehrani & Pontell, 2015).

Throughout the summer of 2008, a variety of different sources reported dangerous infant formula to various regulatory agencies, only to be either redirected in their inquiry or censored. On July 16, 2008, Gansu Province reported to the Chinese Ministry of Health that a local hospital was treating sick infants who had been fed Sanlu formula. As a result, the Ministry of Health sent investigators to Gansu Province in August, but no further information was obtained. On July 24, 2008, a pediatric urologist raised concerns at his hospital about the connection between sick infants and formula, but he was told to speak to the health department instead. A journalist for the newspaper Southern Weekend caught wind of the dangerous formula but was censored by the Chinese government before the story made it to press.

Ghazi-Tehrani and Pontell (2015) concluded by arguing that there are key differences between a Western response to corporate crime and a Chinese response, but the differences are a matter of degree rather than complete dissimilarity. First, the immediate response of both local and national Chinese government was an attempt to cover up the crimes, instead of halting the crimes themselves. The Hebei provincial government tried to put a towel over the case and to deal with it without an official recall, while the national government censored Internet and media reports for at least 3 years, culminating in a blanket media ban on food safety issues in the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Just as Crenson (1972) and Goetz (1997) found in the United States, governments may tolerate the negative societal effects of white-collar crime if there is also an economic benefit from the crime. In this case, relegating milk adulteration to “non-issue” status was the good business decision, and the central government, through media manipulation and censorship, did not just tolerate the adulteration, but actively attempted to ensure it continued.

Second, unlike the creation of OSHA in the United States, the eventual Chinese government response was the result of pressure from the New Zealand Prime Minister (who had learned of the crimes through Sanlu’s business partners in New Zealand), not the public. In fact, in the immediate aftermath, Chinese officials maintained that the adulteration was accidental, and, in an effort to quell public protest and a potential larger social movement, required a “non-disclosure agreement” legal contract for compensation and medical aid. Those who did not sign an agreement were not provided with help, and those who spoke out against the government faced prison sentences. While a New Zealand company, Fonterra, owned 43% of the Sanlu Group and would undoubtedly be affected by any disclosure of adulteration, the New Zealand government’s pursuit of publicity instead of an attempt at silence under the threat of prison is illustrative of a difference between the West and China (Ghazi-Tehrani & Pontell, 2015).

Third, milk adulteration continues, although on a much lower scale. In the years since the situation became public, efforts to prevent additional adulteration have not focused on more efficient monitoring, instead, they have resulted in the lowering of milk quality standards, further demonstrating China’s familiarity with the objective relation between the state and capital. As a point of comparison, in the United States, the Food Safety Enforcement Act of 2009 and the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 increased Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversight and granted the agency a number of new regulatory powers, including the ability to institute mandatory recalls. The additional oversight and increased regulatory power, as opposed to increasingly lax quality standards, exemplify the distance between China and the United States on the modern food safety continuum.

The Role of the State

In 2003, Kauzlarich et al. argued that the state-initiated and state-facilitated dichotomy created by Aulette and Michalowski (1993) lacked clear delineating parameters and instead suggested a four-step continuum that more accurately describes the types of state-corporate crimes being committed.

At one end of the complicity continuum is commission, and at the other end is omission. Commission represents the active and conscious effort involved in state crimes, while omission is the state’s disregard of, or negligence related to, a crime. Thus, one end of the continuum is active decision-making and conscious, purposeful behavior, while the other end is the failure to act, or the failure to act properly, in the phenomenon of state crime. The continuum also represents the transparency of the relation between the production of the crime and the state’s goals. These qualifications combine to produce four unique types of state-corporate crimes along the continuum, ranging from least complicit to most complicit: omission-implicit, omission-explicit, commission-implicit, and commission-explicit.


The commission-explicit point on the continuum represents the most overt and purposeful actions. These are principally grounded in attempts to reach a state’s material goals. Therefore, these crimes tend to be both the most severe and the most noticeable. Fortunately, these crimes also tend to be infrequent. The archetypical examples include the Holocaust, Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia, and the campaign waged against Native Americans. These heinous crimes tend to be committed without corporate assistance, although there are examples of state-corporate alliances, such as the use of IBM technology—a punch-card tabulation system—to help facilitate Nazi genocide.


Closely resembling state-initiated crimes (Kramer & Michalowski, 1990), commission-implicit crimes are distinguished from commission-explicit crimes by the degree to which the state is involved. The example given by Kauzlarich et al. (2003) is that of the U.S. Department of Energy’s funding of decades of research into the consequences of radiation exposure on human test subjects. The benefits of the research accrued to both sides: the scientists received monetary support, prestige, and publishable research findings, while the government, specifically the military, learned what would happen after various types of radiation exposure. The tests resulted in the deaths of numerous test subjects and severely compromised the health of subjects who survived.


Similar to state-facilitated crimes (Aulette & Michalowski, 1993), omission-explicit crimes occur when the state disregards unsafe and dangerous conditions, when it has a clear mandate and responsibility to make a situation or context safe. Safety is frequently compromised in the name of capital accumulation, and the injuries themselves are caused by bureaucratic failures and institutional dysfunction due to the hegemonic structure of the state. Omission-explicit crime is perfectly exemplified by the 1991 Imperial Foods fire.


Kauzlarich et al. (2003) admitted that omission-implicit crime remains the most contentious, as it equates social problems, such as racial, income, and gender inequality, to state crime. The authors argue that, by doing nothing to solve problems of inequality, the state is engaged in crime because it allows institutions and actors to remain harmful and marginalizing. The archetypical example here is extreme unequal distribution of wealth and the associated problems of poverty, such as homelessness. Homelessness, drug addiction, and domestic violence are all arguably crimes “solvable” by the government, but continued state negligence results in continued victimization of non-elites.


State-corporate crimes are a particularly chilling category of offense due to the fact that governments are supposed to protect the public; these crimes represent active and knowing harm to the public. For example, although the purpose of the U.S. federal government, as stated in the Preamble to the Constitution, is to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” a host of events call into question the government’s devotion to these values. Beyond the crimes discussed (Challenger, Imperial Foods, and melamine), other examples are the crash of ValuJet flight 592, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the invasion of Iraq with Halliburton’s involvement.

Given the government’s role in these crimes, policies directed at stopping future offenses are likely to remain unenacted and unenforced, and mainly consist of corporate regulation and oversight. Institutions to regulate American corporations already exist—the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Securities and Exchange Commission are just three examples of agencies designed to combat state-corporate crimes. Unfortunately, politicians who want to appear “pro-business” have hamstrung all three agencies, among others. Without a monumental shift in societal thinking (indeed, a large amount of state-corporate crime research posits Marxist solutions), it remains unlikely that the status quo will shift or that there will be a reduction in state-corporate offenses.

Further Reading

Barnett, H. (1981). Corporate capitalism, corporate crime. Crime & Delinquency, 27, 4–23.Find this resource:

    Chambliss, W. (1989). State-organized crime. Criminology, 27, 183–208.Find this resource:

      Clinard, M., & Yeager, P. (1980). Corporate crime. New York, NY: Free Press.Find this resource:

        Friedrichs, D. O. (1996). Trusted criminals: White collar crime in contemporary society. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.Find this resource:

          Friedrichs, D. O. (Ed.). (1998). State crime. Volume I: Defining, delineating and explaining state crime. Aldershot, UK: AshgateFind this resource:

            Geis, G., Meier, R. F., & Salinger, L. M. (Eds.). (1995). White-collar crime: Classic and contemporary views (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Free PressFind this resource:

              Kramer, R. C. (1992). The space shuttle Challenger explosion: A case study of state-corporate crime. In K. Schlegel & D. Weisburd (Eds.), White collar crime reconsidered (pp. 212–241). Boston: Northeastern University Press.Find this resource:

                Passas, N. (1990). Anomie and corporate deviance. Contemporary Crises, 14, 157–178.Find this resource:

                  Shover, N., & Wright, J. P. (Eds.). (2001). Crimes of privilege: Readings in white-collar crime. New York, NY: Oxford.Find this resource:


                    Aulette, J. R., & Michalowski, R. (1993). Fire in Hamlet: A case study of state-corporate crime. In K. D. Tunnell (Ed.), Political crime in contemporary America: A critical approach (pp. 171–206). New York, NY: Garland Publishing.Find this resource:

                      Barnett, H. (1979). Wealth, crime, and capital accumulation. Contemporary Crises, 3(121).Find this resource:

                        Calavita, K. (1983). The Demise of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration: A Case Study in Symbolic Action. Social Problems, 30, 427.Find this resource:

                          Calavita, K., & Pontell, H. N. (1994). The state and white-collar crime: Saving the savings and loans. Law & Society Review, 28(2), 297–324.Find this resource:

                            Calavita, K., Tillman, R., & Pontell, H. N. (1997). The savings and loan debacle, financial crime, and the state. Annual Review of Sociology, 23(1), 19–38.Find this resource:

                              Chambliss, W. J., & Seidman, R. B. (1971). Law, order, and power (2nd ed.). United States: Addison-Wesley.

                              Clinard, M., & Quinney, R. (1973). Criminal behavior systems: A typology. New York, NY: Holt.Find this resource:

                                Coleman, J. W. (1987). Toward an integrated theory of white-collar crime. American Journal of Sociology, 93(2), 406–439.Find this resource:

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