Attorney Alex Ozols, owner of the Ozols Law Firm in San Diego, has practiced law for decades but never allowed the justice system to jade him. But he isn’t blind to the disparities.
“Years ago, I had a white client that stole around $200,000 from the school board,” Ozols recalled. “I also had a Black client that stole a bicycle that was valued at over $1,000. Both were charged with felonies, and both offers from the prosecutor were the same.
“When we went to court, I remember talking to the judge about it,” he said. “He was a young judge who was a former district attorney and was a judge that was fair and that everyone liked. And I openly chatted with him about the $200,000 theft case. I told him I thought the client should get probation, no jail time, and a misdemeanor at some point in the future — whether I really thought that or not, it was a duty to do the best for my clients.
“[The judge] said to me, and I will never forget, ‘I don’t know what it is or why society is like this, I really don’t know,’” Ozols said.
For some reason, white-collar crimes such as embezzlement — especially against white defendants — are just not treated as a big deal, the lawyer asserted.
“I hope this changes in the future, but honestly, that’s just the way it is, and I don’t know why it is seen that way,” Ozols said. “The norm is for us to just act like it’s OK when white people commit a white-collar crime. Whether it’s a belief or a mindset or whatever it is, it’s just not changing, and I have no idea why.”
Primarily unprosecuted white-collar crimes cost the United States an estimated $300 billion to $800 billion each year. By contrast, street-level property crime costs roughly $16 billion, according to a new report.
With the holiday season in full swing, a time when criminals tend to commit more financial crimes, many have questioned why white-collar crimes are essentially shrugged off compared to those of the so-called blue-collar variety.
“Unfortunately, the mantra of ‘the rich get richer and the poor get prison’ is still true,” said Nora V. Demleitner, the Roy L. Steinheimer Jr. Professor of Law at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. “The disconnect in the focus of the criminal justice system has grown worse because criminal opportunities have changed over time. For example, before the development of public benefit programs, public benefits fraud wasn’t even a possibility.
“The internet now allows for theft, also across international boundaries, that wasn’t imaginable even two decades ago,” Demleitner said. “But the enforcement machinery has not changed accordingly, Street-level property crime is easy to understand and relatively easy to prosecute. It also continues to disturb people and create fear and worries though personal internet crime does, too.”
Today’s term white-collar crime includes relatively easily solvable offenses, those that are difficult to track and sometimes difficult to prove but still relatively easy to comprehend, like some forms of fraudulent billing.
Then there are vast, hard-to-track, complicated fraud schemes, Demleitner added.
“The type of law enforcement needed to investigate these types of crimes and the prosecutors to prosecute them is very different than the law enforcement officer who can investigate shoplifting or burglary,” the professor said. “But the rewards in the system may be the same: arrests and convictions count, irrespective of the crime.”
Maurice Davis, a criminal defense lawyer who handles white-collar crime cases in Detroit, said the United States legal system still proliferates structural racism.
Proof of that is the failure to prosecute white-collar crimes committed predominantly by white people while zealously prosecuting street-level property crimes worth far less, Davis said.
“Our government spends resources prosecuting crimes that don’t cost to pay for continued power of white privilege,” he said. “I am cautiously optimistic that the upcoming change in the White House administration will yield some much-needed reform in our criminal justice system.”
Demleitner offered that there is a focus on offenders who aren’t wealthy and as demographically more diverse than the wealthiest offenders within white-collar crime.
“The wealthier the defendant, the better the criminal lawyer they can obtain,” she said. “Of course, even the best lawyer can’t do much with bad facts, but they can make life very complicated for the prosecution, sometimes too complicated. Because of the way in which wealth is distributed in U.S. society, that means these types of offenders are predominately white.
“What this distorted focus does is create the impression that only certain people commit crimes, and these certain people are poorer and more diverse or foreigners, for some internet fraud offenses,” Demleitner said. “Indeed, within the two groups of crimes, you’ll probably find substantial racial differences on both the offender and victim side.
“Are white-collar crimes with predominantly African-American victims as vigorously prosecuted as those with white victims?” she said. “We know that isn’t the case on the street-level crime side. And that reinforces a sense that the state has deserted Black communities, unwilling to enforce their rights and addressing their victimization. In turn, it will lead to less reporting of the crimes that cause more substantial financial damage.”