VII. Social Class, Crime, and Policy
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:
- how social class shapes the definition of crime,
- how social class influences patterns of victimization and wrongful behavior,
- 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.