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.