I agree with you that the U.S. justice system tends to punish the powerless and the poor, who are least able to defend themselves from legal attack, while those that "steal big" tend to get away with it, because they're too big to fail or too important to challenge. A skeptic or keen observor might say that the rich make the rules and can afford the most and best lawyers and can make the biggest and most frequent campaign donations.
Disclaimer: Please note that this answer does not constitute legal advice, and should not be relied on, since each state has different laws, each situation is fact specific, and it is impossible to evaluate a legal problem without a comprehensive consultation and review of all the facts and documents at issue. This answer does not create an attorney-client relationship.
It is not true that white collar criminals do not go to prison - Bernard Madoff is serving 150 years. Even Martha Stewart went to prison for lying to federal investigators. This are NOT exceptions - there are many people in federal prison for lengthy sentences for securities fraud, ponzi schemes, tax fraud and other white collar crimes.
Often we think that if some people lost money and others made money someone should go to jail. The questions of who and why are not discussed. The expression that this is a nation of laws not of men (women) means that what happens is decided by the law and not individuals. We don't live under a despot who selects someone to pay for a wrong to satisfy the masses. Otherwise, the police would have arrested all the Moslems to be punished for 9-11 just as the Nazis punished the Jews for Germany's financial problems.
In federal court, a sentencing judge must consider numerous factors before deciding what sentence to impose. Some of these factors favor defendants charged with white collar offenses. For example, the person who steals a TV set in your example or other petty thieves generally have extensive criminal records, while white collar criminals tend not to have prior histories. Of course, there are first time petty thieves and multiple ponzi schemers but in general the opposite is true. This factor weighs in favor of the white collar defendant. On the other hand, the judge will look at the number of victims and the scale of the crime. This factor generally weighs in favor of the blue collar criminal. In your example, the person who steals the TV set has injured one business or family and caused a loss measured in the hundreds of dollars. In contrast, Madoff injured many, many individuals and also institutions including charities and the lost may have been in the billions. So Madoff received a 150 year sentence while the hypothetical TV thief would receive a short sentence if any.
THESE COMMENTS ARE NOT LEGAL ADVICE. They are provided for informational purposes only. Actual legal advice can only be provided after consultation by an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction. Answering this question does not create an attorney-client relationship or otherwise require further consultation.
I think the answer to your question is that "white collar" crimes usually have diverse victims with paper injuries like corporations, associations, banks and the like.
"Blue collar" crimes have identifiable victims who often suffer visible injuries. It is much easier for a prosecutor, judge or jury to get upset and want to punish severely a person who has caused identifiable damage to an individual sitting in the courtroom.
There is another factor--a "blue collar" criminal often times had direct personal contact with their accuser and this is simply more offensive to folks than a white collar victim who defrauded a number of faceless victims.
Is this fair or not? I don't know but I think human nature explains the answer to this question.
The question's premise reflects a popular misconception, but one that was quite accurate not too many years ago. Check out this article for more discussion on how this has changed: