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II. What Is Social Class, and Why Is It Important?
III. Exploring the Social Class–Crime Link
IV. Explaining the Relationship Between Social Class and Criminality
V. Perceptions of Crime as a Lower-Class Phenomenon
VI. Social Class and Criminal Victimization
VII. Social Class, Crime, and Policy
VIII. Whose Crimes Are More Harmful?
The relationship between social class and crime has been a long-standing source of debate in criminology. Specifically, there is considerable disagreement as to whether crime is largely a lower-class phenomenon or is more broadly and equally distributed. The significance of this debate, and thus its longevity, stems from the fact that most established criminological theories are predicated on the belief that there is something about a lower-class lifestyle that is inherently criminogenic. In fact, during the early and middle decades of the 20th century, most new criminological theories began with the assumption that crime was primarily a lower-class phenomenon (see, e.g., Cloward & Ohlin, 1960; Cohen, 1955; Miller, 1958, Shaw & McKay, 1942).
More recently, the assumption of lower-class exceptionalism has been challenged by empirical research that has attempted to determine the class–crime relationship instead of accepting it as the starting point for criminological inquiry. Unfortunately, because of disparate findings and inconclusive results, criminologists have yet to establish a conclusive answer regarding the class–crime relationship, a relationship that is further complicated when crimes of the powerful, which normally are excluded from criminological analyses of class and crime, are entered into the equation.
This research paper examines the possibility that differing conclusions about class and crime by researchers supposedly analyzing the same phenomenon may be rooted in methodological differences. It also considers the possibility that if the long-assumed causal relationship between lower social classes and criminality is incorrect, not only are many theories of nature and origins of crime based on an erroneous supposition, but the criminal justice policies based on these theories are also formulated on a fundamental misperception. Most crime control policies disproportionately target individuals from the lower classes while ignoring the harms caused by people in the upper classes. If crime and other harmful activities are, in fact, more widely distributed across social classes, these policies, then, may be ineffectual at best and, at worst, counterproductive or even harmful when it comes to combating crime and reducing the harm that it causes.
There are several notable aspects of the relationship between social class and crime: (a) how social class shapes the definition of crime, (b) how social class influences patterns of victimization and wrongful behavior, and (c) how the commonly held societal perception that crime comprises largely lower-class behaviors influences the way the criminal justice system deals with lower income populations. However, before examining these topics, we must begin by examining the definition of social class, why social classes exist, and why they are an important aspect of free market societies.
II. What Is Social Class, and Why Is It Important?
When discussing social class, we frequently hear terms such as upper class, middle class, lower class, working class, and underclass. These terms attempt to differentiate social groups according to their access to economic, social, political, cultural, or lifestyle resources. Although such terms present an overly simplistic description that ignores the complexity and difficulties in defining social class, they do provide a starting point for discussing social stratification.
Economic resources consist of the wealth and/or income controlled by different social groups. The extent to which groups can exert political influence and/or cultural authority constitutes social resources, and the ability to directly shape the actions of governmental institutions such as political leaders or governmental functionaries, or indirectly through the exercise of power outside of government, constitute political resources. Cultural capital refers to the capacity of social classes to shape popular perception through access and control of mass media, education, and other platforms of public communication.
Finally, the phrase lifestyle resources refers to the degree to which group-based patterns of behavior and belief are valued or devalued within a society. These include such things as modes of speech, style of dress, attitudes and values, and preferred and/or available pleasures. As illustrated in studies of ghetto youth (see, e.g., Bourgois, 1995, and Wilson, 1987), the less individuals can look, talk, dress, and act in the approved white, middle-class manner, the less likely they are to be hired, even when they have the necessary skills for a job.
Attempts to understand social class typically fall into one of two types: (1) those following a Marxian model of social class and (2) those following a Weberian model of social class. Marxian models are concerned with locating individuals within distinct groups with respect to their relationship to the means of products, for example, those who earn some or all of their income through the ownership of productive wealth versus those whose only source of income is their ability to work for a wage. Because the social structure of modern industrial societies involves many more class locations than the simple distinction between owners and workers would allow, some analysts have developed the notion of class fractions; that is, although many people work for wages, some, such as corporate managers, are more closely linked to ownership structures than others, such as low-income wage workers. Considerable effort has been devoted to creating more precise definitions of where one class fraction ends and another begins. This theoretically grounded approach to social class has been incorporated into sociological and economic research, but it has rarely been used within criminological research.
Criminological research typically treats social class from a Weberian perspective that views class as a matter of relative income levels. A more useful model for viewing social class is to understand it not simply as a matter of relative income but as the intersection of economic, cultural, and political resources that place social groups somewhere along a social class continuum ranging from the least to the most advantaged groups. At the highest level of this social class continuum in the United States are those groups that (a) earn large annual incomes; (b) control much of the country’s wealth, in the form of real estate and material objects as well as in financial securities such as stocks, bonds, and hedge funds; (c) exert substantial influence over developing and implementing laws and governmental policy; (d) use wealth and power to shape the content of mass media; and (e) live the kinds of lifestyles that many people envy and would like to emulate. At the lower end are social groups that (a) earn relatively low annual incomes; (b) own little material property and almost no financial securities; (c) have minimal influence over government or media; and (d) have patterns of speech, dress, and behavior that are often viewed as disturbing or “dangerous” by better-off segments of the society. Between these two extremes are other groupings characterized by differing configurations of economic, social, and lifestyle resources that afford them fewer benefits than elites but more than the worst off.
The criminological significance of this differential distribution of resources is how it influences justice processes. Specifically, the social class system in America enables resource-advantaged groups to implement definitions of crime and justice that ensure elite-caused harms will rarely be treated as crime while harms more common among less advantaged groups—so-called street crimes— will be criminalized and vigorously punished.
Another important question to address is: Why do social classes exist? Like most of the world, the United States is based on a political–economic system organized around free-market competition. In these competitive market systems, some people win a larger share of the society’s resources and assets than others. A number of reasons explain why some people may fare better in the competition for resources than others. A commonly held perception is that people obtain more because they work harder and sacrifice more; however, this is not always the case. Some people fare better than others because they are healthier or start life with more cultural and economic advantages than others. Others gain more because they have more hope and have not succumbed to the frustrations caused by the constant negotiation of the obstacles that society has placed in front of them. Although these represent some individual reasons for success or failure, they are not the cause of inequalities among large social groups.
For societies organized around economic competition, the division of society into social classes based on varying levels of material success is an inevitable, structural outcome. In the absence of measures that work to reduce social inequality, these differences tend to solidify into highly unequal class systems, in which people who are advantaged acquire more than the disadvantaged. The division of society into social classes also has a cumulative effect on economic disparity, whereby the more resources individuals bring to the game, the more resources they can win, in particular because economic expansion does not produce equal benefits to all social classes.
Between 1979 and 2005, for instance, the United States experienced a period of substantial economic growth. By 2005, however, the after-tax income of the richest 5% of the U.S. population had grown by over 80%, while the income of the bottom 20% of the population had declined by 1%. Although the middle fifth of the population, which represents the heart of America’s hard-working middle class, did experience a 15% increase in net income during this time, this was still only about one fifth of the growth experienced by the top 5% of income earners (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006). In other words, according to a number of sources, it was clear that, during one of the strongest periods of income growth, income inequality increased.
In addition to shaping the distribution of financial wealth, economic stratification ensures the continuation of social class distinctions by determining access to social capital, that is, the nonmonetary resources and skills that enable individuals to do well in competitive societies. Children who grow up in financially advantaged homes in neighborhoods with high-quality schools, and who enjoy important developmental experiences such as early exposure to reading, writing, and analytic reasoning, will characteristically do better in school, pursue more advanced levels of education, obtain better careers, and earn more money over the course of their lives than people who grow up in households that could not provide these benefits. It is true that some individuals who are born poor succeed beyond expectations, while some who have every advantage fail; however, this is atypical. For most of the people, most of the time, their social class origins will shape much of their adult lives. The process of uneven competition ensures that wealth will concentrate within relatively small segments of the population, ensuring the continuation of social class differences.
Although an uneven distribution of wealth and cultural advantages is inevitable in any competitive-market society, the degree of inequality is the result of political forces. Governmental policies can either intensify or lessen class inequalities. Progressive taxation of income and capital gains can finance programs and policies that improve the chances of the people who are less well off while reducing income and wealth inequality. Alternatively, governments can pursue policies that make the poor poorer and the rich richer, such as regressive sales taxes and reducing the amount of money spent on social programs that would close the wealth gap.
III. Exploring the Social Class–Crime Link
Whereas the origin of social classes is relatively clear, the effect of social class divisions on crime is less so. Annual reports of the characteristics of people arrested in the United States provide insight concerning gender, age, race, and ethnicity but tell us little about social class characteristics such as income, occupation, or residence. Consequently, the best information we have regarding the social class characteristics of the individuals who inhabit U.S. prisons and jails derives from surveys of prison inmates and, interestingly, the government provides very little money to fund research into these characteristics. The last detailed survey of prisoners serving felony sentences in state penitentiaries, who make up the majority of those incarcerated in the United States in any given year, was conducted in 1993. Apparently, the federal government has little interest in regularly gathering information about the class and other social characteristics of prisoners.
An examination of the U.S. correctional population leaves little doubt that most of the people serving time for criminal offenses come from the lower end of society’s socioeconomic continuum. Government statistics show that criminal offenders in prison tend to be less well educated, more likely to be unemployed, and to earn far lower incomes than the general population. A 2002 survey conducted on inmates incarcerated in local jails revealed a similar pattern: Only about half of jail inmates were employed full-time at the time of their arrest, even though the national unemployment rate was below 5%, and over half of jail inmates earned less than $15,000 a year (Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, 2004).
Although these statistics may be somewhat skewed by the fact that better-off offenders who are charged with street crimes are more likely to avoid imprisonment, there is little reason to believe the degree of error is substantial. All one has to do is observe any urban police station or city court to know that very few middle- or upper class citizens are arrested and prosecuted for common street crimes. Clearly, the criminal justice net hauls in the poorest of the poor. What this tells us about the link between social class and criminal behavior, however, remains controversial. Some scholars argue that the disproportionate representation of poor people in prison is indicative of their overinvolvement in crime, whereas others suggest this disparity is the result of a criminal justice system that unfairly targets the poor.
The contradictory perceptions about the relationship between social class and criminality are, in part, the product of disparate research findings. There is no shortage of research studies that have examined this relationship; however, there is little consensus because of inconsistent findings and inclusive results. For example, some studies have concluded that crime is more likely among people in higher social classes, whereas others have found criminality more prevalent among the lower classes. Some of these inconsistencies are traced to the different research methods used to study this relationship. These include different data collection methods; different measures of social class, crime, and criminality; different samples; and different methods of data analyses.
An examination of the past research reveals that the earliest of these studies (those conducted before the 1950s) tended to find more criminality among the lower classes than the upper classes. These findings in turn provided the foundation for numerous theories of crime and delinquency that attempted to explain why poverty was criminogenic, focusing on factors such as individual and cultural deficiencies, lack of opportunity, and differential (and harsher) treatment of individuals in poorer communities by the criminal justice system. Many of these theories, however, were only tenuously rooted in empirical research.
Although the social class–crime link was widely accepted, there were criminologists of the time who took issue with the methods that produced the correlation between social class and criminality. Most commonly, they argued that measuring crime through the use of official data (i.e., arrest data, prison statistics) presented a biased picture of crime. This measure of crime simply did not take into account the reality that many crimes go unnoticed or unreported, or for some other reason simply do not become known to those who wish to count them. This unknown and uncounted crime is referred to as the dark figure of crime. The problem, as they saw it, was that there was no way to determine whether accurately measuring the dark figure of crime would or would not show crime to be more broadly distributed. Some criminologists also argued that official measures of crime may actually better measure police practices than actual levels of crime; that is, in reality they may simply reflect, at least in part, the discretionary practices of police officers concerning whom to arrest and whom not to arrest, or a judge’s propensity for sending particular offenders to prison while reserving alternative, community-based sanctions for others.
The development of self-report data in the 1950s intensified the ongoing debate. Researchers administered surveys to individuals randomly selected from the population and asked them to report their criminal behaviors. Although many of the earliest of these studies did not support the belief that lower social classes were more criminal, there was also enough research that found contradictory results to ensure that the issue would not be resolved. Furthermore, there were as many sociologists and criminologists who attacked the validity of self-report data as there were those who took issue with the validity of official measures of crime. Their argument was that there is no way to determine whether people in self-report studies are telling the truth about their criminal behavior. Doubters suggested that self-report surveys were better measures of a participant’s willingness to tell the truth about his or her criminality. They also speculated that people from the lower classes were underreporting their deviant and criminal behavior while those in the upper classes were overreporting, thereby artificially reducing the magnitude of the correlation between lower-class status and criminality.
Tittle, Villemez, and Smith (1978) reviewed 35 research studies that had examined the social class–crime link and concluded that there was an extremely small relationship, with the members of the lower classes exhibiting slightly more criminality. They also noted that this relationship had become smaller over the past four decades.
This by no means settled the debate; instead, research became the impetus for even more extensive and complicated empirical efforts. Much of these later efforts attempted to discover the conditions under which social class influences criminality. One set of studies attempted to determine whether the manner in which social class and crime were measured affects the likelihood of discovering a link between social class and crime. In terms of social class, several studies suggested that this relationship may exist only among people in the lowest economic strata, the group sometimes referred to as the underclass. These studies then measured social class by dividing populations into dichotomous categories such as welfare recipients and nonrecipients or, for school-age children, those who receive free lunches and those who do not. Other studies used a composite measure of social class, which often included education, occupation, and income. Still other studies used Marxian classifications of social class, conceptualizing social class in terms of an individual’s (or his or her parents’) relationship to the means of production— specifically, whether they owned some means of production or sold their labor for a wage. Still others expanded this fairly simple classification to include other variables, such as whether one has control over the means of production and/or control over the labor of others. The emphasis on control helped to distinguish between wage workers who have managerial positions and those who do not, an increasingly prevalent distinction in modern society.
Crime was also measured in a number of different ways in an effort to determine whether it conditions the social class–criminality relationship. For example, a number of studies have examined whether the negative relationship between social class and delinquency existed only for the most serious criminal offenses or the most frequent offenders. Also, the source of crime data was thought to have an effect on whether a relationship between social class and crime was uncovered. Some criminologists held that crime would be shown to be more prevalent among the lower class if official police data or court records are used to determine criminality. As previously mentioned, they argued that people from lower classes are more likely to underreport their criminal behavior on self-report surveys.
A number of studies also sought to determine whether demographic and environmental variables had important conditioning effects on the class–crime relationship. For example, some studies examined whether the effect of social class on criminality was greater among blacks than it was for whites or among males than among females. Given the contradictory results of these research efforts, it would be difficult to suggest that the social class– criminality relationship was specific to a certain race or gender. Still another set of studies has examined whether this relationship was more likely in areas that were characterized as being more heterogeneous, more urban, or in higher status areas, and again produced mixed results.
Tittle and Meier (1990) reviewed the research literature that examined the relationship between socioeconomic status and delinquency and that attempted to specify whether any of the aforementioned conditions mattered. They concluded that there was little evidence that the link between social class and criminality existed under any of the conditions examined.
More recent and sophisticated studies have generally arrived at similar conclusions, although some studies did help clarify the relationship. For example, Wright and his colleagues (B. R. E. Wright, Caspi, Moffitt, Miech, & Silva, 1999) found that people in lower social classes experienced lower educational and occupational goals and more financial strain, aggression, and alienation, which in turn increase delinquency. Delinquency in the higher social classes, on the other hand, was the result of high socioeconomic status causing increased risk taking and social power, and diminished the commitment to conventional values, all of which then predispose these youth to delinquency. Dunaway, Cullen, Burton, and Evans (2000) examined the relationship between social class (measured in a variety of ways) and criminality (based on self-report surveys) and found that, among adults, the correlation was weak for less serious offenses. They did, however, find a class effect for violent offenses and among non-whites. This study was distinctive in that it measured adult criminality, a surprisingly underresearched population. In the end, the best conclusion that can be drawn about the relationship between social class and the commission of street crimes is that it tends to be weak and present only under certain specified conditions, and criminology researchers must continue to attempt to specify other circumstances that may influence this relationship.
What many of these studies do have in common is that most approached the definition of crime as being nonproblematic instead of acknowledging crime as a multifaceted concept that includes crimes of the disadvantaged as well as crimes of the powerful. Unfortunately, the latter were, and still are, less apt to be considered. This is important, because if studies included offenses that powerful individuals are more likely to commit (e.g., insider trading), and that those in lower classes are in no position to commit, then there would be little question as to whether criminality would appear more evenly distributed across social classes than has traditionally been thought. Moreover, it is only by including a wider variety of offenses that we can consider the social class–crime link as having been more completely and fairly tested.
So, although there has been little advancement toward settling the social class–street crime questions, the introduction of self-report studies has generally confirmed that criminality is more broadly and equally distributed across social classes than previously suspected. In fact, to date, these studies have consistently shown that nearly 90% of Americans have committed at least one crime for which they could have been sentenced to jail or prison. These findings may confirm that the use of official statistics means that we may not actually be measuring the level of crime or propensity for criminality but instead are measuring the decision-making practices of the criminal justice system (i.e., when to file an official police report, whom to arrest, whom to charge, and whom to send to prison).
IV. Explaining the Relationship Between Social Class and Criminality
Although the relationship between social class and crime remains contested and unclear, it has not prevented the development of a number of theoretical explanations, which are formulated around the belief that poor people simply commit more serious crime. There are three types of explanations: (1) individualistic theories, (2) social interactionist theories, and (3) structural outcomes theories.
Currently, the most favored theories are those that suggest that higher rates of street crime among the poor are the product of family failings and personal morality. Collectively, these theories are considered individualistic explanations for crime. Body Count (Bennett, Dilulio, & Walters, 1996), an influential, conservative assessment of crime trends, argued that crime is the result of “moral poverty.” The authors claimed that high crime rates occur when families fail to impose clear moral understandings of right and wrong on the next generation. By focusing on “street criminals,” the authors make it clear that they are primarily concerned with the “moral poverty” of the poorer classes, not the moral poverty of the families that produce corporate and political criminals.
A second set of approaches suggests that if it were not for the discriminatory practices of the criminal justice system, the affluent would appear to be as equally criminal as the poor or, put in more positive terms, the poor would appear to be just as law abiding as the affluent. These social interactionist explanations contend that the criminals who show up in official statistics are disproportionately poor because (a) the justice system focuses on controlling poor communities, and (b) this practice increases the likelihood of future criminality by labeling residents of these areas, particularly young men, as criminals at an early age. A typical example put forth is that the proportion of drug users among college students is no less than in that in poor communities, yet college students have a far lower risk of serving time as drug offenders than residents of poor communities because they are not the targets of “wars on drugs”—which are really wars on poor people. Although there is some merit to this approach, the question that remains is: Why does the criminal justice system do this? Is it merely a reflection of the discriminatory attitudes of the people who work in the justice system, or are they, as good workers, simply pursuing the goals set out for them by a broader political and economic system?
Finally, there are scholars who argue that poor communities suffer from higher rates of crime, in the same way that they suffer from disproportionate levels of other problems, such as alcohol and drug abuse, medical ailments, stress and hopelessness, not because of individual failings but because of the physical and emotional pressures of poverty and inequality. These structural outcome perspectives focus on the structurally induced discrepancy between the material desires of people in the poorer classes and their access to legitimate opportunities for fulfilling them. As initially described by Robert Merton (1938), this concept of structural strain contends that although desires for the “good things” in life are equally distributed across all social classes, the poor have fewer resources to obtain them. Some individuals resolve this pressure by resorting to illegal means to fulfill their culturally learned desires. When it comes to nonutilitarian crimes, such as interpersonal violence or drug use, structural outcomes models shift their focus toward how the daily frustrations and sadness of living poor can increase tendencies toward aggression or to self-medication with illegal drugs and alcohol as an escape from the hardships of daily life.
Regardless of the future outcome of the ongoing debate as to whether social class determines criminality in terms of the incidence or even prevalence of crime, it seems likely that social class at least shapes the types of crimes one commits. As the populist folk singer of the 1930s, Woody Guthrie, wrote, “Some men rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen.” Whether one uses a six-gun or a fountain pen depends on the socioeconomic status of the individual. Although it is clear that those who occupy the most privileged and powerful positions certainly can and do at times engage in private crimes of greed, lust, or insanity, it is rarely possible for those in lower classes to engage in many of the illegal behaviors of the rich. Offenses such as price-fixing, embezzlement, and wire and securities fraud require jobs and circumstances possessed by people who have been exposed to advanced education and other social and cultural privileges.
The criminal justice system, however, is designed almost exclusively to control people who “rob you with a six-gun.” Those who commit corporate and political crime with a pen have little to fear from the justice system. In other words, social class not only shapes the type of crime one can commit but also influences the likelihood of apprehension and severity of punishment. Many of the crimes in which people from the lower class participate, such as drug dealing, prostitution, and robbery, occur outside in the street, where detection is more probable. However, state-sponsored, corporate, and white-collar crime tends to occur behind the closed doors of offices and conference rooms, where detection is much more difficult. Also, when apprehension and threat of criminal prosecution do occur, individuals who possess economic and social capital are more likely to avoid punishment. They are able to post bail; employ high-priced, experienced attorneys; participate in developing their defense; and use their status in the community to decrease likelihood of conviction and/or severe penalties. Individuals in the lower classes, however, may not be able to raise bail and are more likely to be represented by an overworked, underexperienced public defender. Economically disadvantaged offenders may not even meet their attorneys until minutes before the trial, and, when they do, they are often persuaded to plead guilty in return for a less severe punishment.
V. Perceptions of Crime as a Lower-Class Phenomenon
Perceptually speaking, there appears to be a consensus among a large segment of the U.S. population that crime is largely the product of the behavior of lower-class populations.
If the relationship between social class and crime is not supported by research, why does the perception persist? In his seminal work concerning the social reality of crime, Richard Quinney (1970) noted that certain forms of crimes are embedded in the psyche of the American people; that is, when we think about crime, we tend to think of it in very narrow terms, often omitting the most prevalent crimes and, often, the people who cause the most harm. We tend to envision street crimes, such as murder, robbery, burglary, and assault, while rarely conceiving of white-collar, corporate, and state-sponsored crimes. Because street crime is often more likely to be carried out by people in the lower classes, and crimes of the elite—which generally do not occupy the public consciousness—are committed almost universally by people with economic, political, and social power, the theory of the social reality of crime neatly associates criminality with those on the lower rungs of the economic and social ladder. This remains true even in the face of the well-documented data demonstrating that crimes committed by the powerful cost the U.S. population more, both in terms of monetary and physical costs. Quinney (1977) suggested that this is so because the definition of what constitutes a crime is developed by those with economic, political, and social power and according to their own interests, whereas individuals without such power are more likely to have their activities defined as criminal.
Explanations for why the American public tends to have such a limited conception of crime are plentiful. The way crime is measured sheds light on one way that people obtain a narrow definition. There are three general methods used to measure crime: (1) official statistics, (2) victimization surveys, and (3) self-report studies. The last two methods measure various aspects of victimization and self-reported criminal behavior, and the first usually involves the Uniform Crime Reports, which relies on crimes known to the police to provide us with estimated crime rates. A crime become known to the police either because an officer discovers it or, more likely, because someone reports it to the police. As long as the police make a report of the crime, it is available to be counted and used in calculating crime rates. The caveat to this is that, in creating an overall crime rate, the Uniform Crime Report measures only eight offenses: (1) murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, (2) forcible rape, (3) robbery, (4) aggravated assault, (5) burglary, larceny–theft, (6) motor vehicle theft, (7) simple assault, and (8) arson. The first four are violent offenses, and the second four are property offenses. Because these offenses deal mostly with street crime, which the poor are more likely to commit, and omit a large number of offenses, many of which those in the upper economic strata are likely to commit, crime rates provide a skewed picture of crime.
Of course, news and entertainment media have also worked to present a picture of crime and victimization that is not necessarily rooted in reality. Crime has become a prominent theme in media content. One of the most noticeable aspects of media coverage of crime is that it tends to focus on the rarest of crimes. Images of relatively high-profile rapes, murders, and robberies are displayed on television screens throughout the day, throughout the country. Local newspapers and news shows typically adhere to the adage “If it bleeds, it leads.” News stories about the deviant and illegal practices of political, economic, and social elites receive no comparable attention unless they occur on a very large scale, as was the case with the collapse of companies such as Enron and WorldCom because of financial crimes.
However, media practices are not a complete explanation. As social actors, people play a role in, if not creating, then surely allowing the emergence and sustainability of a distorted image of crime. Stories about violent and gruesome crimes tend to capture public interest. This interest is part of the reason that the newspaper articles we read, and the news, movies, and TV shows we watch are dominated by crime stories. Indeed, some analysts argue that the media are simply responding to the desires of the public. They are a business and, like all businesses, their primary goal is to increase market share, advertising income, and profits. Therefore, if the public did not consume what the media presented, then the media would have to change what they offer or go out of business.
Public perceptions of crime are also a product of ideology. Many of our ideas about crime and criminality are rooted in socialization and personal circumstances. Shaped by social background, religious principles, and political preferences, many people develop strong ideas about the causes and cures of criminal behavior relatively early in life. The extent to which people accept the common view of crime as a lower-class phenomenon is due in part to the fact that these views coincide nicely with the dominant rhetoric of religious, economic, and political leaders about the relationships among sin, poverty, and crime.
Finally, criminologists are complicit in creating an inaccurate depiction of crime. Criminology has historically focused almost exclusively on street crime in theoretical development and empirical research; that is, criminologists have devoted far more attention to describing and explaining crimes such as murder, burglary, robbery, and drug use than to white-collar offenses such as securities fraud, illegal price fixing, or other forms of elite deviance. It is only recently that a significant number of criminologists have started to empirically examine crimes of the elite.
VI. Social Class and Criminal Victimization
Although there is some debate about the relationship between social class and criminality, the link between social class and criminal victimization is well-known and commonly accepted. Data provided by the National Crime Victimization Survey indicate that although the link between social class and victimization varies according to crime, overall, people who are less well-off tend to bear a greater burden as crime victims, particularly with respect to crimes of violence. The difference between rich and poor households as victims of property crime is less dramatic, although for the more serious crime of burglary, poor households face greater risks than rich ones.
The popular image of street crime is often that of the poor preying on the rich, but the reality of crime is that most people tend to commit crime within a relatively short distance of where they live. Thus, if the structural contradictions of poverty and inequality are more likely to result in individuals committing ordinary crimes, it means that the poor are also more likely to be the victims of street crimes.
VII. Social Class, Crime, and Policy
Most problematic about the apparent misconception of the criminogenic nature of economic and social disadvantage is that policies implemented on the basis of this assumption are more harmful to the lower classes. Government policies can increase or decrease the criminogenic consequences of income and wealth inequality by choosing to pursue preventive or punitive justice strategies. Preventive strategies, such as preschool education of poor children, housing subsidies, and income support policies for poor families, will help reduce the negative effects of inequality, lessening the number of low-income children for whom hopelessness becomes a pathway to delinquency, drug use, and maybe even adult crime. Punitive strategies, which are far more prevalent today, attack crime through get-tough tactics such as determinate sentencing, “wars” on crime and drugs, and removal of rehabilitation programs from prisons. This results in an increase in the number of people, mostly poor, who will be victims of the crimes committed by those who have become enmeshed in the justice system in ways that leave little option but to return to crime once they return to their communities.
Social class divisions are characterized by the asymmetrical distribution of political power, cultural authority, and wealth. Individuals whose money comes principally from investments or high-paying occupations have more opportunities to influence the formal institutions of government—including the justice system—than ordinary wageworkers, the poor, the unemployed, the young, or the undereducated. If you doubt this, examine the U.S. Senate, the Congress, or your state legislature, and you will find that most of the members tend to be wealthy, employed in high-status professions, or business owners, or possess some combination of these characteristics. At the federal level, one third of all senators and over one quarter of all congressional representatives are millionaires (Santini, 2004). The nonelite social groups that together comprise the vast majority of the American social landscape are almost entirely absent from the law-making process. As a result, the laws and policies that shape how we define crime are more likely to reflect the values, life experiences, and interests of the upper echelons of society.
Of course, laws and policies do not reflect the interests only of the upper echelons of society. Across social classes, there are many areas of consensus over the definition of crime. Both the rich and the poor agree that murder, rape, and burglary should be treated as crimes. It is where this consensus over the definition of crime breaks down that the greater power of the upper classes becomes apparent. For example, most Americans view deliberate acts of white-collar crime that lead to death or injury as being as serious as street crimes that lead to death or injury, and view corporate and political corruption as being as deserving of punishment as ordinary acts of theft. Lawmakers, however, come primarily from the strata of society that has the exclusive ability to commit white-collar crimes. As a result, the prosecution and punishment of white-collar, corporate, and political crimes has always been more lenient than the treatment of street crimes.
VIII. Whose Crimes Are More Harmful?
In addition to the conflict over who is more likely to commit crime, there is considerable disagreement about whose crimes cause the most harm. Past research fortunately has provided some fairly clear answers to this question, resulting in the following observation: Elite offenders pose a far greater risk to health, life, and economic well-being than street criminals.
There are approximately 20,000 homicides in the United States every year; however, approximately 100,000 people die every year because of work-related illnesses and accidents, and almost 40,000 deaths occur because of inadequate medical care and unnecessary surgeries. Jay Albanese (1995) estimated that annual economic losses due to street crime are about $10 billion, whereas the losses due to white-collar crime were nearly $200 billion. As Jeffrey Reiman (2004) notes in his book, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, the latter figure is undoubtedly an underestimate. Reiman’s own calculations put the cost of white-collar crimes in the United States at over $400 billion a year. He suggested that this figure also underestimates the true cost of white-collar crime. In fact, other researchers have estimated that the material and physical losses from white-collar and corporate crime may actually exceed $600 billion.
If we ask, then, who is more likely to cause harm to society, it would appear that the upper and middle-class sectors pose the greatest danger to our health, life, and economic well-being. If we stick to the question of who commits the crimes targeted by the justice system, the picture remains unclear.
Social class has always been a critical component in the study of crime, criminality, and the criminal justice system’s responses. Although research is unclear as to the exact nature of the relationship, it seems evident that social class matters. It matters in determining who decides which harmful behaviors are criminalized and which are not. It matters when determining the severity of sanctions. It matters in the kinds of offenses one can commit and the quality of defenses one can mount when apprehended. It matters when one is looking at arrest records and prison populations. It matters when one is determining victimization patterns, and it matters in calculating the harm caused by crime. Ironically, where it may not matter is in determining who is more likely to be a criminal. Nevertheless, it matters, and because it matters, criminological research will, we hope, continue to explore the effects of social class on crime and, more important, its effect on justice, the one place where social class should definitely not matter.
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