Each year, hundreds of research studies are issued on ordinary crime. But it wasn't until October 1979 that the first large-scale, comprehensive report on corporate crime was published, with no fanfare.

Such contrasts abound in "Illegal corporate Behavior," a 346-page volume retice Department's Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. For example:

In the 1960s, the average loss in about 3 million burglaries each year was $422, for an annual total of about $1.3 billion. The largest robbery in history -- from a Lufthansa German Airlines warehouse in New York last year -- netted $5.4 million. The largest welfare fraud ever committed by one person- a Los Angeles woman who used eight different names to collect money for 70 dependent children -- totaled $240,000.

But the overcharges in a single price-fixing conspiracy -- the famed one involving 29 manufacturers of electrical equipment -- exceeded $2 billion, or at least $700 million more than the grand total for all reported burglaries.

For the burglars, and also for thieves whose average take in thefts and larcenies is $165, prison sentences run five to 10 years or even longer.

By contrast, "Few members of corporate management ever go to prison even if convicted; generally they are placed on probation," writes University of Wisconsin sociologist Marshall B. Clinard, who directed the 22-month study.

"If they do go to prison, it is almost always for a very short period of time," he continued. "For the crimes committed by the large corporations, the sole punishment often consists of warnings, consent decrees (under which an accused agrees not to do thereafter what he doesn't admit having done previously), or comparatively small fines."

Clinard traced 56 executives -- employed by the 582 largest publicly owned and mainly industrial corporations in the study -- who were convicted of federal offenses under enforcement actions initiaed or completed in 1975-1976.

Thirty-five of the 56 were freed on probation and five drew suspended sentences. Two drew six months for tax fraud. The remaining 14 all were officers of 23 carton-manufacturing firms that engaged in a 14-year price-rigging conspiracy. Its stakes are suggested by the size of the settlements with customers who had sued the firms for triple damages: the settlements totaled $218 million. The jail terms dealt the 14 men added up to 237 days: none actually served more than 15 days.

Ordinary offenders rarely are sentenced to perform socially useful activities instead of going to jail. Again, this isn't the case for prestigious executives, partly because they hire excellent lawyers "able to cite many precedents where a businessman charged with similar behavior had not been punished for it." Clinard said.

An ordinary criminal who is found guilty, or even someone who is charged with an offense, rarely can keep his job. Most corporate executives convicted of, or charged with, serious violations "are allowed to retain lucrative retirement benefits, while others may have their salaries reduced temporarily," Clinard said. "Some are kept in the firms for some time, or at least until the case is finally resolved, largely for public relations purposes. . . .

"One year after 21 corporate executives were fined or sent to prison for making illegal campaign contributions in 1973-1974, for example, 12 still remained in their preconviction corporate positions, five had resigned or retired, two were serving as consultants and two had been discharged."

The contrasts aside, Clinard emphasized something that runs in an opposite direction: 232 -- or 40 percent -- of the corporations in the study weren't targeted for a single legal action in two years by any of the 24 federal agencies positioned to have brought one.

Astonishingly, he told Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) at a March hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, there's no research on who or what keeps such firms on a straight-and-narrow path while peer companies are cited -- sometimes repeatedly -- for illegal behavior.

The book, which is available for $7 from the Government Printing Office, acknowledges that the study faced great difficulties, some of which a rose from corporate organizational structure, conglomerates with diverse subsidiaries, the wide diversity of sanctions, and the need to rank the gravity of violations.

"It is inconceivable that centralized data are not available on the illegal behavior of each of the giant U.S. corporations, controlling as they do tremendous economic power . . . as well as the well-being of millions," Clinard said.