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date: 04 July 2022

Political Corruption and State Crimefree

Political Corruption and State Crimefree

  • Clayton PeoplesClayton PeoplesDepartment of Social Psychology, University of Nevada, Reno
  •  and James E. SuttonJames E. SuttonDepartment of Anthropology and Sociology, Hobart and William Smith Colleges


The state is responsible for maintaining law and order in society and protecting the people. Sometimes it fails to fulfill these responsibilities; in other cases, it actively harms people. There have been many instances of political corruption and state crime throughout history, with impacts that range from economic damage to physical injury to death—sometimes on a massive scale (e.g., economic recession, pollution/poisoning, genocide). The challenge for criminologists, however, is that defining political corruption and state crime can be thorny, as can identifying their perpetrators—who can often be collectives of individuals such as organizations and governments—and their victims. In turn, pinpointing appropriate avenues of controlling these crimes can be difficult. These challenges are exacerbated by power issues and the associated reality that the state is in a position to write or change laws and, in essence, regulate itself. One possible solution is to define political corruption and state crime—as well as their perpetrators and victims—as broadly as possible to include a variety of scenarios that may or may not exhibit violations of criminal law. Likewise, a resolution to the issue of social control would be to move beyond strictly institutional mechanisms of control. Criminological research should further elucidate these issues; it should also, however, move beyond conceptual dilemmas toward (a) better understanding the processes underlying political corruption/state crime and (b) illustrating the broader ramifications of these crimes.


  • White Collar Crime

A Criminological Overview of Political Corruption and State Crime

In ideal conceptions of democracy and governance, the state represents and serves the people; it is a protector of people’s rights and freedoms. Unfortunately, the state does not always fulfill this role. Indeed, in some cases the state does the exact opposite and harms the very people it is supposed to protect—sometimes engaging in implicit or even explicit criminal activity in the process (see, e.g., Kramer & Michalowski, 1990). Criminal acts by the state tend to both reflect and result from abuses of power when they occur. Political corruption and crimes of the state are therefore often inextricably linked in complicated ways.

Although political corruption receives considerable scholarly attention in political science (see, e.g., Heidenheimer & Johnston, 2002; Philp, 1997; Rose-Ackerman, 1999), relatively little attention has been paid to political corruption in criminology. There have, however, been high-profile calls in criminology to examine the broader theme of state crime (see, e.g., Chambliss’s statements during his 1988 presidential address, documented in Criminology, 1989), and a sizable literature has emerged around that topic. This literature has primarily focused on conceptual issues related to state crime, but some studies have begun to branch out into other related areas. Overall, while state crime has received more attention than political corruption in criminology, both have received less emphasis than other topics within the white collar crime literature, which itself is small in comparison with the literature on street crime.

This article outlines a framework for a criminological understanding of political corruption and state crime—particularly in the context of the United States. The key conceptual question in the state crime literature is, put simply: What is the definition of state crime? A concomitant conceptual question for this article is: What is political corruption? Hence, this article provides overviews of attempts to address these questions for a criminology audience. Conceptual challenges and debates have often hindered the development of the literatures highlighted here beyond the conceptual stage (Zimring & Johnson, 2005). This article therefore focuses on issues pertaining to conceptual clarifications while ultimately foregrounding the interconnections between political corruption and state crime.

When assessing a specific type of crime, there are a number of important substantive considerations that extend beyond the conceptual realm. For instance, aside from defining what a particular crime is, criminologists and others will also want to know more about how it is perpetrated, its victimology, the social control mechanisms that it has elicited, and its broader impact on society. Accordingly, this article also presents sections on each of these substantive themes as they pertain to political corruption and crimes of the state. This article concludes by offering some ideas for future directions in this important and growing area of scholarship.

Literature Review

Criminological work on political corruption and state crime has roots in research on white collar and organized offending (Nelken & Levi, 1996). As such, this section begins with an overview of selected key works on white collar crime to provide a starting point for understanding political corruption and crimes of the state. It then addresses the key conceptual issues related to political corruption and state crime, with an emphasis on consensus or oft-cited definitions of key terms, where they exist, as well as influential typologies of these crimes.

Criminaloids and White Collar Crime

The lineage of scholarly attention to the crimes of powerful actors can be traced back to Edward A. Ross’s classic article “The Criminaloid.” Ross (1907, p. 45) warned of pro-social offenders, or criminaloids, that are “guilty in the eyes of the law: but since they are not culpable in the eyes of the public and in their own eye, their spiritual attitude is not that of the criminal.” The examples Ross provided were of powerful offenders from more advantaged social positions who engaged in bribery and other forms of offending that are along the lines of what we focus on in this article.

Approximately 40 years later, Edwin Sutherland coined the term white collar crime, which he defined as “. . . a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation” (Sutherland, 1983, p. 7). Sutherland’s groundbreaking work provided a systematic study of offending perpetrated by corporate offenders, and it set the stage for subsequent empirical work in this area. In turn, Clinard and Yeager (1980) conducted a study of corporate crime about 30 years later that updated and expanded upon the scope of Sutherland’s research. For instance, whereas Sutherland examined the offending of 70 corporations, Clinard and Yeager studied 582 corporations. Clinard and Yeager also further distinguished between occupational offenses that are perpetrated for the benefit of individuals and corporate offenses that are perpetrated to further the interests of the corporation, and their work remains the most comprehensive study of corporate offending to date. This article introduces other influential works as well in subsequent sections; it first, however, turns to corruption.

Corruption: Early Emphases

Although corruption—particularly political corruption—is a well-studied area in political science (see, e.g., Heidenheimer & Johnston, 2002; Philp, 1997; Rose-Ackerman, 1999), attention to corruption within criminology has been limited (Huisman & Vande Walle, 2010). This said, policing is one subfield in which notable works on corruption have been published.

Some of the best known books on police corruption were authored by Sherman (1974) and Goldstein (1974). Goldstein outlined the challenges associated with defining police corruption and put forth his own definition, in which he states that police corruption includes “. . . acts involving the misuse of authority by a police officer in a manner designed to produce personal gain for himself or for others” (Goldstein, 1974, p. 3). Although Goldstein’s definition, and most of the examples outlined in his book, emphasized the personal, or occupational, nature of offending, Goldstein also presented examples of coordinated forms of corruption perpetrated by multiple actors within police organizations.

Another classic study of corruption from the 1970s is William Chambliss’s On the Take. Chambliss (1978) examined the intersections of organized crime and corruption among police and local governmental officials, and his work is especially notable for the ways in which it outlined dynamics of collusion, interplay, and exchange that occur on the local level. Chambliss’s research provides us with a fitting segue into organized crime, which is the primary context within which political corruption has been studied over the years by criminologists (Huisman & Vande Walle, 2010).

Corruption has most often been approached as a facilitator of organized crime. Similar to police corruption, there have also been definitional challenges associated with determining what actually constitutes organized crime and corruption (Beare, 1997). If we return to Sutherland’s definition of white collar crime, organized crime would differ in that the perpetrators would not be people “. . . of respectability and high social status in the course of [their] occupation” (Sutherland, 1983, p. 7). With respect to corruption, Beare (1997) notes that common corruption categories within the context of organized crime include “bribes/kick-backs” and “election/campaign corruption,” which involve illegal payments to gain desired outcomes, as well as garnering influence by offering “protection.”

Political Corruption

Political corruption is certainly not a new phenomenon. The early great thinkers in philosophy (e.g., Aristotle, Plato) addressed the topic, and the Roman Empire—and its fall—serves as an important early case study (MacMullen, 1988). Despite this, the term “political corruption” has no agreed-upon definition. Although efforts have been made to advance conceptual frameworks of political corruption (e.g., Heidenheimer & Johnston, 2002; Philp, 1997), a consensus definition does not currently exist—particularly in the criminology literature.

Many definitional challenges—and, hence, debates within the study of crime—come down to issues of inclusivity, parsimony, and analytic precision. One possibility is to cast the net broadly and formulate a broad, inclusive definition. For instance, Sutherland (1945) thought of crime as going beyond state-defined violations of the criminal law to include acts that were civil law violations as well as those that were “socially injurious.” Scholars who focus on political corruption have made similar calls to go beyond legal definitions.

Passas (1998, pp. 44–45) argues that political corruption comprises “public officials acting in the best interest of private concerns, regardless of, or against, the public interest. Therefore, corruption can be defined as the covert privatization of government functions.” Kaufmann and Vicente (2011) make a similar case and contend that corruption need not be exclusive to acts that are illegal.

Like Passas (1998) and Kaufmann and Vicente (2011), Douglas and Johnson (1977, p. 4) also endorse a more inclusive definition. In fact, they argue that the term political corruption is itself limiting, and they propose that official deviance be used instead for two reasons: first, there is a wide range of officials performing governmental functions, including many who are not necessarily deemed to be “political” by others or themselves; second, corruption tends to connote “material” and monetary exchanges for desired outcomes, yet “most people are more concerned with usurpation of power by officials than with their material corruption.” To capture this sentiment, they therefore prefer the term deviance because it is more general and encompassing.

In contrast to definitions that extend beyond legal categories, Zimring and Johnson (2005, p. 796) argue that embracing the legal component is crucial when conceptualizing political corruption, much as Tappan (1947) argued many decades ago with crime, more generally. They define corruption as “the illegal use of power for personal gain,” and they maintain that the legal threshold allows for clearer analytical specification. Zimring and Johnson (2005) further note that laws reflect local norms, which makes them the ideal dimension in which to examine corruption comparatively. Whereas Zimring and Johnson differ sharply from others on whether or not criminologists should focus on legal conceptualizations, they are similar in that most works in this area emphasize the misuse of power for personal gain.

State Crime

Chambliss (1989, p. 184) defines state crime as “acts defined by law as criminal and committed by state officials in the pursuit of their job as representatives of the state,” and he adds that state crime does not include acts “that benefit only individual officeholders.” State crime is therefore something that involves the state or its actors, and it is done to benefit more than just the individuals who are connected to its perpetration.

One possible point of contention concerning the above definition, though, pertains to restricting state crime to only those acts that are defined by law as criminal. Others argue that state crime can also include actions that are “deviant, abusive, harmful . . . [or] wrongful” (Ross, 2015, p. 499). Put directly, similar to political corruption, one can think of state crime as something that extends beyond legal definitions—particularly given that state actors have the power to define what is legal and illegal (discussed in more detail later). As such, a more inclusive definition might simply specify the prerequisite conditions that ought to be present to consider something a state crime—namely that (a) those committing the crimes are state actors or entities and (b) some kind of harm results from these actors’/entities’ actions (or inaction).

In conceptualizing state crime, one factor to consider is the role of the state in said criminal activity—is it explicitly involved or implicitly involved? Put differently, some state crimes may be state-initiated, while others are state-facilitated (Kramer & Michalowski, 1990). Another related factor is the nature of the state. Friedrichs (2010) identifies four different types of states that may be involved in state crimes: a criminal state, a repressive state, a corrupt state, or a negligent state. There is some overlap between these two typologies in that criminal or repressive states may be more likely to initiate crimes, whereas a negligent state, for instance, may tend to facilitate crimes.

The typology of Friedrichs (2010) is also useful in thinking about the connection between political corruption and state crime. State crime can be thought of as being connected to distinct from political corruption, depending on the circumstances. As noted above, Friedrichs identifies a corrupt state as one type of state that may be engaged in state crime; the other forms may not necessarily hinge on corruption as an element (e.g., a repressive state). But it is also easy to imagine scenarios in which political corruption can lead to state crime—or crimes that involve collusion between the state and other entities such as corporations.

State-Corporate Crime

Any consideration of state crime would be incomplete without mentioning state-corporate crime. A frequently cited definition asserts that 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). Note that here, much like with political corruption and state crime, it is not just legality that is a factor—socially injurious actions are also considered.

The state can play any number of roles in state-corporate crime. An insightful typology developed by Kauzlarich and colleagues (2003) outlines four possible roles for the state, along with examples of crimes/outcomes: omission-implicit (e.g., inequality), omission-explicit (e.g., regulatory failure), commission-implicit (funding unethical experiments), and commission-explicit (e.g., genocide).

The key element in all of the above roles, however, is the interaction between the state and economic entities, as in Aulette and Michalowski’s (1993) oft-cited definition. Put directly, things like political corruption and state crime do not exist in a vacuum. Just as political corruption can be linked with state crime, state crime can involve perpetrators within and outside the state, morphing into state-corporate crime.


One of the key challenges in examining political corruption and state crime is determining who exactly the perpetrators are. With other types of crime (e.g., street crime), it is relatively obvious who the perpetrators are, in part because it is specific individuals who are committing a given crime. With political corruption and state crime, however, determining the perpetrators is not nearly so straightforward. This is due, in part, to the fact that entire organizations/entities can be involved in these crimes rather than just individuals.

Individual Versus Organizational Perpetrators

Although most research in criminology tends to study situations in which individuals are perpetrators, some scholars have argued that “organizations, not just individuals, commit deviant acts” (Ermann & Lundman, 1978, p. 55). This is a very important insight, as it broadens the net in terms of who can be considered a perpetrator. This becomes especially important when looking at something like state crime.

Although the state is made up of myriad individuals serving in a variety of capacities, state decisions are normally collective in nature, and state actions are typically carried out by agencies with the authority to do so. For instance, policy is made by legislative bodies (e.g., Congress); laws are enforced by agencies (e.g., the DEA). As such, when decisions or actions of the state cross into corrupt and/or criminal territory, it may be collectivities—organizations, agencies, or even the state itself—who are the perpetrators.

The idea that collectivities engage in political corruption and/or state crime fits well with the typologies outlined in the literature review. For instance, in the complicity continuum of Kauzlarich, Mullins, and Matthews (2003), explicit omission might involve state agencies failing to perform their regulatory functions; explicit commission would involve the state itself engaging in crimes. This overlaps well with the typology of Friedrichs (2010), which identifies a number of state types that may engage in political corruption (e.g., a corrupt state) or state crime (e.g., a criminal state).

The Role of Networks and Exchange

Social networks and their associated exchanges help move political corruption and crimes of the state from the individual level to the organizational level. Take campaign contributions, for instance. Campaign contributions are typically given in person to a political candidate, which establishes a social tie (Clawson, Neustadtl, & Weller, 1998). Something of value—campaign money—has also been given in the process. If the candidate happens to win office, she or he may feel compelled to “return the favor” due to the principle of reciprocity (Cialdini, 2001). So, when a contributor requests help (e.g., a “yea” vote) on a future piece of legislation, the politician may feel obligated to do so. Research has shown that this happens with surprising regularity and involves large swaths of politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike (Peoples & Sutton, 2015). These exchanges, in aggregate, help shape legislation and tilt laws in favor of moneyed contributors rather than the public as a whole (Gilens & Page, 2014).

There are some interesting things to note about the example of campaign contributions influencing votes. First, it is not usually a quid pro quo exchange. Politicians typically do not make explicit promises to do things in exchange for contributions (there are exceptions, of course). Instead, they provide help in the future on a to-be-determined issue or bill. Given that there typically is not a quid pro quo exchange involved, these situations do not fit standard legal definitions of bribery. But in the words of Russell Long, “[t]he distinction between a campaign contribution and a bribe is almost a hairline’s difference” (Kaiser, 2009, p. 18). More importantly, whether technically a bribe or not, campaign contributions can lead to corruption—both in the public’s perception and in reality.

Opinion polls consistently show that people believe money influences politics (NYT/CBS, 2015). These views can erode the public’s confidence in the state. This is evident in the abysmal approval ratings for Congress, which reached record lows of approximately 10% in recent years (Gallup, 2016). These views can also lead people to believe that political bodies such as Congress have become corrupt (see, e.g., a CNN poll in 2006). But have they become corrupt? Citing the “competing dependencies” that campaign contributions create, Lessig (2011) argues that institutions such as Congress have, in fact, become corrupt. This leads directly into the final item of note about campaign contributions influencing votes: it is ultimately at the institutional and/or organizational level where this plays out.

In the work of Peoples and Sutton (2015), it was not merely a handful of individual lawmakers (“a few bad apples”) who were influenced by their contributors—a statistically significant percentage of lawmakers were engaged in this behavior. Additionally, this happened within the context of social networks such that pairs of lawmakers would vote “yea” together on legislation based on their mutual ties to contributors. In other words, there was a culture of collusion and influence-peddling that permeated Congress—it had become a corrupt institution. And again, as noted earlier, the work of Gilens and Page (2014) suggests that the result of this is policy that favors elites over the rest of society.

The example of campaign contributions nicely demonstrates that offending is not limited to the individual level. Moreover, it also shows how it can be difficult in practice to determine who the perpetrators are when political corruption and crimes of the state occur. These complications ultimately underscore the importance of conceptualization, as an individualistic and purely legalistic view of crime would not apply to this kind of situation. Similar difficulties emerge when trying to identify the victims of these complex offenses.


Victims are often afterthoughts in the study of crime, and this is particularly the case when it comes to white collar offending. This is also true of political corruption and crimes of the state, where victims have received scant attention. There are several reasons why.

From a conceptual standpoint, the lack of agreement on what constitutes an offense or perpetrator ultimately results in a lack of consensus on who is victimized. Moreover—and irrespective of how offenses might technically be defined—these acts may feature actors who derive mutual benefits from the arrangement. It is therefore highly unlikely that one of these actors will feel victimized and contact authorities (Zimring & Johnson, 2005).

Visibility is another consideration. Ross (1907) suggested that “criminaloids” take efforts to avoid targeting their own communities when offending. It may also be very difficult in some cases to identify victims or connect victimizations to the situations that caused them. The number of victims (or potential victims) can further complicate matters. It may be quite challenging to determine how many people are adversely impacted by a given policy or action and to what extent they are affected: it could be a relatively small number of people, it could be entire cultures or societies. Likewise, there may be significant lag time between these acts and their effects. Moreover, the complexities associated with organizational forms of offending might make it impossible to either detect harms that have been perpetrated or connect perpetrated harms to the actors that caused them. This is particularly likely when offenses transcend national or other jurisdictional borders. The disconnects between actors, actions, and consequences resulting from political corruption and crimes of the state likely result in these forms of victimization being less visible than the temporal and visceral victimizations that are characteristic of street crime.

An additional consideration for victimology surrounding political corruption and state crime is power. It was previously noted that corrupt exchanges are unlikely to result in the involved actors feeling victimized given that they each benefit from the transaction. However, it may be that more peripheral actors perceive themselves as victims but feel powerless in the situation. For instance, the previous section outlined what appears to be open corruption perpetrated by Congress. Zimring and Johnson (2005, p. 804) argue that conspicuous offending serves as “. . . an advertisement of the corrupt actor’s power.” To the extent that this is the case with political corruption and crimes of the state, victims may feel helpless to seek voice for their experiences—especially when the very entities that are supposed to help them are the ones committing the offenses.

We can and should ask what the victimology of political corruption and state crime looks like. Unfortunately, the broader conceptual challenges that have previously been noted preclude us from coming to a definitive answer, though a few observations are instructive. First, the victimizations that stem from these forms of offending are often qualitatively different from the individual victimizations that commonly occur within the context of street crime. On a related note, the scale of victimization resulting from these acts is potentially far reaching given that these harms are often perpetrated by organizational actors. Lastly, the systematic, organizational, and structural forces that often render victims invisible and disempowered can ultimately prevent us from knowing much about them, furthering their invisibility.

Social Control Mechanisms

With most crimes, there are clear-cut sanctions in place to regulate/control their incidence. With political corruption and state crime, however, things are much blurrier. There are two likely reasons why this is the case: (1) as noted earlier, state crimes are complicated in that neither the perpetrators of these crimes nor their victims are readily identifiable, and (2) it is the state that is normally in a position to regulate/control crime, and, thus, it has a conflict of interest in regulating/controlling itself. Of course, this does not mean that there are no efforts to control state crime—there are (see, e.g., Ross, 2000). It does mean, however, that efforts to control state crime face a number of challenges.

Challenges Related to Perpetrators/Victims

The fact that there is gray area with regard to conceptualization, and therefore identification, of the perpetrators and victims of state crimes makes it difficult to control these offenses. This is due to both practical considerations and issues of power.

With regard to practical considerations, there are problems that emerge when it is unclear who the perpetrators or victims are with a given crime. When the perpetrators cannot be concretely identified, questions arise that are difficult to answer: Who should be prosecuted for the crime? What should the sanctions/penalties be? How should the penalties be applied? This is compounded by the fact that, as noted above, those who engage in state crime are often large organizations. How does one go about prosecuting an organization or an entire government? When the victims cannot be identified, again difficult questions come up: Who can make legitimate claims of harm? How should they (or their loved ones) be compensated?

With regard to power, it is well established that powerful entities in society escape prosecution—or receive more lenient sentences if they are prosecuted—than less powerful individuals. This is certainly true of white collar and corporate crime; it is likely true of state crime as well. A less-often-acknowledged reality, though, is that powerful entities can even tilt the laws in their favor (what Lukes, 1974, refers to as the “second dimension of power”) to allow for activities that in most other contexts would be considered illegal.

This reality of powerful entities tilting the laws in their favor might partly explain why these powerful entities are not prosecuted for their crimes—their activities may not technically be illegal if they have succeeded in getting the laws changed to allow these activities. A great example from the corporate world is the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 (to be described again shortly), which repealed provisions of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act by allowing banks and investing firms to merge. In so doing, it allowed entities such as Citigroup to legally proceed as merged corporations—the 1999 Act is sometimes referred to in critical circles as “the Citigroup Relief Act”—even though their existence would have been illegal anytime in the 66 years preceding the Act.

When thinking about the state, the ability to shape and tilt laws is even more important. After all, state entities (e.g., legislatures) are literally the very bodies that craft and pass laws. They are therefore in the perfect position to tilt laws in their favor (or exempt themselves from laws that might typically apply to other individuals or entities). This is, however, a clear conflict of interest, as is self-regulation.

Conflicts of Interest in Lawmaking and Self-Regulation

As noted above, the state is responsible for writing and passing laws. It is also tasked with defining, regulating, and controlling criminal behavior. But what if the state or its entities are the ones engaging in crime—can the state be trusted to regulate itself?

Congress presents an interesting case study. Many of the organizations meant to limit congressional deviance are themselves controlled by Congress. For instance, internal ethics committees (e.g., the House Committee on Ethics) are responsible for addressing questionable activities among individual members of Congress. The Federal Election Commission (FEC), which is funded by Congress and whose members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, is responsible for monitoring and enforcing campaign finance laws. Even campaign finance laws—and other laws affecting Congress—are themselves written and enacted by Congress. Simply put, Congress gets to set the very rules by which it is governed and accordingly has significant power over how these rules are enforced.

Congress is just one example; there are many others one could explore. The common thread, however, is that state organizations and agencies often lack truly independent mechanisms of regulation. Granted, some might argue that even auditors and regulators are self-interested individuals who might be susceptible to bias (e.g., Rose-Ackerman, 1999), it is nonetheless true that the lack of external oversight means that these entities are charged with “regulating” themselves. Combined with the fact that some of them get to literally make their own rules (see, again, the example of Congress), this means that things such as corruption, deviance, and crime can go virtually unfettered. These organizations and agencies are above the law; the rules and norms of society do not apply to them. The end result is that they can offend with impunity and potentially harm the very individuals they are supposed to protect: the people.

Broader Societal Consequences

Although there are some who could cite Merton’s (1938) classic work on anomie to contend that deviance can occasionally carry positive functions for society, there is ample evidence that political corruption and state crimes have a largely adverse impact. As noted above, the number of people affected can vary: in some instances, it is a relatively small percentage of the population; in other cases, it is entire cultures or societies.

The Adverse Impact of Political Corruption

In terms of political corruption, there are a number of adverse impacts on society. As already noted, policy reflects the preferences of elites rather than the general public (Gilens & Page, 2014). This results in tax codes that benefit corporations (Clawson et al., 1998), sometimes to the detriment of the rest of society (e.g., cutting programs for the poor). Additionally, corporations with connections to politics seek out “government contracts, regulatory waivers, and government subsidies” (Godwin & Seldon, 2002, p. 205), many of which they succeed in obtaining. For instance, Halliburton profited nicely from its connections to the presidential administration during the Iraq War, securing lucrative “no-bid” contracts (Rothe, 2006).

When corporations secure special benefits due to their campaign contributions and connections with politicians, the public can be adversely impacted. This was especially true in the lead-up to the housing crisis and the resultant Great Recession in 2007. We now know that there were two key pieces of legislation passed in 1999 and 2000 that helped lead to the Great Recession (The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, respectively). They allowed banking and investing firms to merge and ensured a virtually unregulated market for risky investments such as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). Evidence is beginning to suggest that campaign contributions significantly influenced the passage of both bills (Peoples, 2012). Although some businesses and firms initially made handsome profits from the activities allowed by these bills, these same activities introduced so much structural risk that the integrity of the system itself became compromised and the economy collapsed. The result—trillions of dollars in losses, with millions of people losing their jobs and their homes.

The Adverse Impact of State (or State-Corporate) Crime

In terms of state crime, adverse impacts on society are similarly pronounced. Again, as noted at the beginning of this section and above, the number of people impacted can vary. Additionally, as noted in the typologies reviewed above, the involvement of the state (implicit versus explicit) can fluctuate depending on the situation. Nonetheless, the negative effects are significant and sometimes even result in death.

A number of examples can fit around the theme of regulatory failure resulting in harm or death. For instance, the Challenger space shuttle disaster likely stemmed, in part, from a breakdown in proper safety protocol (Kramer, 1992). This resulted in the loss of astronauts’ lives and a period of national shock and mourning.

There are other examples of regulatory failure at the nexus between corporations and their (lack of) regulation by the state. For example, stronger regulatory controls could have prevented the fire at the Imperial Foods chicken plant (Aulette & Michalowski, 1993) and the ValuJet crash in Florida (Matthews & Kauzlarich, 2000). These incidents resulted in 25 and 110 deaths, respectively.

Other examples can fit around the theme of the state itself acting as a criminal agent. These examples would fit under the explicit commission category of the complicity continuum (Kauzlarich et al., 2003) and would involve a repressive or criminal state (Friedrichs, 2010). The Holocaust stands out as perhaps the quintessential example of the state acting as a criminal agent. In the Holocaust, over 6 million Jews were killed at the hands of the Nazi government. Any situation, though, in which the state sanctions mistreatment and/or murder (e.g., displacement, slavery, mass executions, genocide) would fit here. It is not a stretch to say that in such cases the state has committed “crimes against humanity,” which have been prosecuted in international criminal courts (e.g., during the Nuremberg Trials). Of course, this ultimately takes us full circle and back to the conceptualization challenges introduced at the beginning of this article.

Conclusions and Future Directions

The state is supposed to protect the people. Sadly, it sometimes does just the opposite—it becomes corrupt and/or engages in criminal activity, thereby harming the people instead. Although political corruption and crimes of the state have historically been understudied by criminologists (much like with white collar and corporate crime), this is beginning to change. A distinct literature has more recently begun to coalesce around corruption and state crime, with high-profile calls for more work in this area (e.g., Chambliss, 1989).

The key debates and unresolved issues in this growing literature revolve around definitional and conceptual problems and, by extension, questions such as: What is political corruption, What is state crime, Who are the perpetrators, Who are the victims, and What are the implications for social control and broader society? The challenge of resolving these complex questions is further exacerbated by the fundamental nature of political corruption and state crime: not only are those who are committing these crimes powerful individuals or entities, they are also often literally in a position to define whether or not their activities are legal (and, by extension, how to regulate these activities, if at all).

The criminology literature is replete with debates over how crime should be defined. Much of the controversy has been centered on whether or not criminologists should adopt state definitions of crime. As noted earlier, Sutherland (1945) thought of crime as going beyond state- defined violations of the criminal law. Schwendinger and Schwendinger (1970) believed that state definitions of crime expressed and reinforced the interests of those with power, and toward this end they called for criminologists to use human rights violations rather than state definitions as the standard for what constitute crimes.

A possible solution to the difficulties of defining the parameters of political corruption and state crime is to follow the above-noted pioneers in thinking beyond the limited scenarios outlined in criminal law. In other words, we can perhaps include acts that are civil law violations, as Sutherland did, as well as those that are, to use his words, “socially injurious.” Future work in this area could continue with this more inclusive approach to what may be defined as political corruption and/or state crime.

A similar solution could be applied to the challenges of determining who perpetrators and victims are with political corruption and state crime: cast the net broadly to be as inclusive as possible. In the case of perpetrators, it is important to remind ourselves that “organizations, not just individuals, commit deviant [or corrupt/criminal] acts” (Ermann & Lundman, 1978, p. 55). Researchers should therefore expand their parameters accordingly. In thinking about victims, casting the net widely can be very helpful as well. As with white collar and corporate crime, the cost of state crime to society in terms of economics, health, and even life are likely very great.

Lastly, in terms of the control of state crime, it is again the case that broader, more inclusive approaches are potentially warranted. As Ross (2015) notes, existing approaches include more typical institutional approaches (e.g., internal and external control mechanisms) plus alternative approaches (e.g., resistance by victims, activists, and oppositional groups). Given the unique positon of the state to write its own rules and regulate itself, the most effective approaches may well be those that do not rely on conventional institutional controls. Instead, alternative approaches involving the public may be more effective in the long run.

In reality, though, research on political corruption and state crime needs to move beyond definitional and conceptual issues and focus on the broader processes and ramifications of these crimes. In terms of processes, political corruption and crimes of the state are ultimately linked through exchange and relationships among actors. Social network analysis may therefore provide a methodological tool through which scholars can better trace the trajectories of these crimes and connect the individual to the organizational level (Peoples & Sutton, 2015).

In terms of ramifications, visibility is critical. With political corruption and state crime, the complexities and powerful actors associated with these acts can result in these offenses going unnoticed or being deliberately hidden. This is why it is critical to follow the call of Chambliss (1989) and conduct more criminological research on crimes of the state (and associated themes). More research on these topics—through both quantitative studies and, importantly, qualitative case studies (Kramer, Michalowski, & Kauzlarich, 2002)—would further increase the visibility of these offenses and give voice to their many, sometimes invisible, victims.

Further Reading

  • Chambliss, W. J. (1978). On the take: From petty crooks to presidents. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Chambliss, W. J. (1989). State-organized crime—The American Society of Criminology, 1988 presidential address. Criminology, 27, 183–208.
  • Clinard, M., & Yeager, P. C. (1980). Corporate crime. New York: Free Press.
  • Domhoff, G. W. (2014). Who rules America? The triumph of the corporate rich (7th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
  • Douglas, J. D., & Johnson, J. M. (1977). Official deviance: Readings in malfeasance, misfeasance, and other forms of corruption. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.
  • Ermann, M. D., & Lundman, R. J. (1978). Deviant acts by complex organizations: Deviance and social control at the organizational level of analysis. The Sociological Quarterly, 19, 55–67.
  • Friedrichs, D. O. (2010). Trusted criminals: White collar crime in contemporary society (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  • Heidenheimer, A. J., & Johnston, M. (Eds.). (2002). Political corruption: Concepts and contexts (3d ed.). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
  • Johnston, M. (2005). Syndromes of corruption: Wealth, power, and democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kauzlarich, D., Mullins, C. W., & Matthews, R. A. (2003). A complicity continuum of state crime. Contemporary Justice Review, 6, 241–254.
  • Peoples, C. D., & Sutton, J. E. (2015). Congressional bribery as state-corporate crime: A social network analysis. Crime, Law and Social Change, 64(2–3), 103–125.
  • Rose-Ackerman, S. (1999). Corruption and government: Causes, consequences, and reform. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rosoff, S. M., Pontell, H. N., & Tillman, R. (2014). Profit without honor: White collar crime and the looting of America (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
  • Ross, J. I. (Ed.). (2000). Controlling state crime. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
  • Sutherland, E. H. (1983). White collar crime: The uncut version. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Tunnell, K. D. (Ed.). (1993). Political crime in contemporary America: A critical approach. New York: Garland.


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  • Chambliss, W. J. (1978). On the take: From petty crooks to presidents. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
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