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.