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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