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Clarifying confused concepts.

TRADITIONAL CRIMINOLOGY admires no crime or criminal more than the "big con" -also known as the long con. Used primarily to refer to a criminal act but also to identify the individual who commits that act, this term represents the apex of many models of criminal behavior. Individuals skilled enough to carry out lengthy and complex crimes, almost always of a nonviolent and deceptive nature, have earned the sometimes reluctant admiration of scholars.

Today, however, this term has largely been replaced by an alternative that begins with the words "white-collar." In 1988 1 led a classroom discussion of criminal Robert W. Liszewski, whose behavior certainly fits the big con mold.'

In his most recent escapade Liszewski hid behind not one but two layers of false identity while embezzling almost $1 million from his employer. Yet, when students were asked how they would describe this man and his behavior, the majority identified him as a "white-collar criminal" engaged in " white-collar crime. " The group of students included graduates and undergraduates and many were actively involved in justice administration.

This shift in concepts is not confined to academic debates. The case of Liszewski was also described in an article in the business magazine Inc. That article was later reprinted in Security Management (August 1988).

We must examine this shift in concepts from the viewpoints of both traditional criminology and the newer academic field of criminal justice. We must also look at the big con as both a crime and a criminal.

First, let's examine the crime. Why has the label big con been partly absorbed by the term white-collar crime (WCC)? One reason is criminology has shifted focus over the past 25 years, with WCC receiving much greater attention than before.(4) As a new generation of scholars accepted Edwin H. Sutherland's challenge to study WCC, those scholars included earlier concepts within the admittedly elastic framework of WCC.

Certainly the basic characteristics of big con offenses lend themselves to such a change in labels: They are nonviolent, dependent upon deception, and commonly involve apparent members of the upper classes. The key connector, however, appears to be the upper-class setting of such crimes. The assumption that the big con usually occurs within socially respectable settings clearly invited the use of WCC as a title for this type of offense.

While the older generation of criminologists talked about the quick street-level hustles known as "short cons" in the same breath as big cons, contemporary theorists tend to distinguish street crimes of all types from those occurring among the middle and upper classes in their presumably respectable circles. Thus, present criminological belief states in effect that all nonviolent and deceptive crimes among the white-collar classes are WCC and should be studied as such.

Paralleling this trend in criminology is the present tendency in criminal justice to study the process of justice as behavior that produces criminal acts. Scholars find focusing on "confidence games" in the older sense less viable than using a class-based perspective. Thus, the contemporary thrust in justice studies reinforces the idea of an elaborate con game as one variation of WCC.

Big cons, in law, usually fall into white-collar categories such as embezzlement or fraud. The law enforcement and prosecutorial levels of the justice system treat big cons as types of WCC. From the systemic perspective they seem to have little in common with any street-level crime-including short cons.

Next, we must look at the big con as criminal. The 1988 classroom debate cited earlier revealed an interesting division among students. When asked which was more important to consider, the criminal or the crime - be it labeled big con or WCC - those whose interest lay in law enforcement or the law invariably identified crime as their priority. Only those with a correctional bent named the criminal or criminal behavior as their primary concern.

While this sp]it is logical given that corrections deals with a more specific group of individuals over a longer period of time, it provides valuable insight into the often confusing reclassification of the big con offender as a white-collar criminal. Both theoretical and practical difficulties arise from this reclassification.

Sutherland's initial conceptualization implied that white-collar criminals are outwardly respectable people committing nonviolent crimes - usually financial or "paper" crimes - within their work environment. Stated differently, these criminals often hold established positions in society, although not necessarily at the highest levels. Their employment is part of their position. They are who they say they are, and whatever their motives for crime, they usually retain their place in the social order. Often they retain some of their former status even after their behavior is exposed.

Clearly, then, classic big con criminals fit very poorly into the traditional framework of white-collar criminality. As with Liszewski, they are not who they say they are. Seeking illegal opportunities in different settings, such offenders often establish a new and false identity with every move.

The typical big con is a career criminal whose activities closely parallel those of traditional property offenders. The big con's motives are clearly criminal from the beginning, whereas the standard white-collar Criminal gradually slips into illegal behavior over a period of time. Traditionally, many white-collar criminals do not begin their careers with the idea of committing illegal acts.

Why, then, has the trend to redefine big con criminals emerged? The answers here are necessarily speculative but certainly suggestive. To begin, this movement may simply be a continuation of the patterns of relabeling related crimes noted earlier. The recent predominant focus on crime creates a certain logic to renaming criminals in the same style. However, more substantive answers are likely.

Perhaps the most apparent explanation for the shift is the radical perspective criminology has developed since the 1960s.' In its most extreme form, the radical stance has been to view as criminal almost any aspect of commercial life as well as many actions of individuals in both public and corporate positions of power.

From that stance it is but a short step to labeling the people carrying out those acts as criminals and then to viewing them as modem confidence men - presenting themselves as honest citizens while violating the law. Big con practitioners, in turn, become simply one more type of confidence man. They fit readily into a modem and expanded class of white-collar offenders whose distinguishing characteristic is their deceptive manipulation of an entire society rather than specific illegal acts.

In short, the most extreme criminologists have labeled big cons as white-collar criminals while defining the behavior of all such offenders as equal to that of the original big cons. While few endorse that position when stated so badly, that implication is clear and it affects justice studies.

Criminal justice, in turn, has adopted this redefinition of an entire class of offenders.' Focusing on systems as they do, criminal justice students find accepting a class-based concept of criminals as well as crime easy.

The classification and processing of offenders also appears more logical if such criminals are lumped in with other individuals who already fall into the white-collar grouping. Big cons typically have the same characteristics as white-collar criminals, including the specific nature of charges brought against them: Members of both groups are likely to be placed together physically should they be sentenced to prison.

From the correctional point of view, at least, merging big cons into a broad white-collar classification makes more sense than placing them with street-level offenders, even of the short con variety. Thus criminal justice, for its own reasons, has reached conclusions similar to those of criminology on the class basis of criminal behavior and its usefulness in understanding and managing modem justice.

In conclusion, those are the origins of the intellectual shift from the big con to white-collar crimes and criminals. While parallels between the concepts make the shift understandable, the result is not completely defensible. On the criminal side especially, the traditional con man fits poorly into the framework of white-collar criminality.

The reasons for the continuing effort to merge the big con into the more recent perspective are varied but appear to be as much the product of ideology and intellectual fads as they are of substantive research or compelling logic. Future scholars, hopefully, will either refine the reasoning behind this trend or establish grounds for refuting it.

About the Author . . . Stanley L. Swart, PhD, is an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. He formerly worked in corrections and has written extensively on criminal justice.
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Title Annotation:the "big con," now labeled "white collar crime"
Author:Swart, Stanley L.
Publication:Security Management
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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