15. Crimes of the Powerful

Michael Brandt, M.A., Coast Mountain College

Positionality Statement

Positionality refers to the belief our individual experiences in the world, our privileges and disadvantages, and our social locations (e.g., gender, social class, ethnicity) influence how we perceive, interpret, and understand the world. Making a “positionality statement” is an opportunity for me to introduce myself to you, the reader, and make visible factors that have influenced how I perceive, interpret and understand the world. This chapter challenges the dominant narrative that crime is predominately a problem of young males from the lowest socioeconomic strata. My own personal “challenge” to a dominant narrative began quite young. I was born in Canada at a time (early 1960s) when heterosexism was the norm, engaging in same-sex behaviour was a criminal offence, and when members of the LGBTQ community were labelled deviants. This kept me “in the closet,” fearful that revealing my own sexual orientation would result in rejection by my friends and family, and in a diagnosis of mentally disordered. I have benefitted from (or not been penalized for) being a white, middle class, and cisgender male. I have never been subject to racial profiling by police or been denied a job because of my skin colour. I have never had to worry about being able to pay my bills or worried about where my next meal would come from. I have never been the object of sexual discrimination or been paid less because of my gender. However, my sexuality made me an outsider, a member of a marginalized and stigmatized community. It also made me question the prevailing norms of society, and why they existed. I have brought that questioning of prevailing norms and applied it to the official definition of crime and current operation of the criminal justice system.


The image of the typical offender created through the way the criminal justice system operates, and through a reliance on official sources of crime data (such as the Uniform Crime Reports – see 5.6 Sampling), is of a young male, from the lower socio-economic strata, who is disproportionately likely to be Indigenous or Black. This image is in stark contrast to who is responsible for most physical and economic harm on our planet: middle-aged and older, affluent, white males holding positions of social, political, and economic power in society. These men are executives in corporations and financial institutions, senior members of the military (particularly those responsible for military spending), and officials within government and their advisors. C.W. Mills referred to them as the “power elite” (Mills, 1956, p.1) and argued that their key positions in economic, political and military institutions helped ensure their harmful behaviours would be less likely the subject of the criminal law and that when their behaviours were subject to criminal law, their positions helped facilitate their criminal behaviour, and evade detection. Consider the following:

Years of dumping mercury near the Grassy Narrows First Nations Reserve in Ontario by the Reed Paper Company has poisoned soil, water, fish and other wildlife. This has led to sickness and disease, including paralysis, coma and death (Bruser & Poisson, 2017; Ilyniak, 2014).

Politicians, heads of state, business people and other high-income individuals have been caught hiding money in off-shore tax havens to evade paying taxes. Total losses: billions of dollars annually (Obermayer & Obermaier, 2017).

Pharmaceutical companies, including Purdue Pharmaceutical and Johnson and Johnson have downplayed the addiction and risks associated with their opiate drugs, and encouraged the mass prescribing of opioids. Total dead from overdoses: over 400,000 (McGreal, 2019; Taub, 2020, p. x). 

The Office of Inspector General has revealed that the U.S. Defence Department cannot account for $21 trillion dollars of spending between 1998 and 2015 (Michigan State University, 2017).

A chemical plant operated by Union Carbide of India exploded as a result of poor maintenance. More than 150,000 were injured and between 10 and 25,000 were killed (Bhopal Medical Appeal, n.d.; Taylor, 2014).

This chapter explores events like those described above. While responsible for enormous physical and financial harm, these events, and ones similar to them, are not always defined as crimes. Instead, they may be defined as regulatory offences, resulting in fines rather than prison time for perpetrators. When they are defined as crimes, they are less likely to be investigated and to result in a prosecution or conviction than traditional “street crimes”, such as robbery or assault. After all, police patrol city streets, not corporate boardrooms or the offices of government. As a result, many of the crimes and harms perpetrated by the most powerful members of society remain undetected and are not typically imagined as part of the “crime problem.”



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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Shereen Hassan and Dan Lett, MA is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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