The relationship between socioeconomic status and crime is an important one that is explored often in sociology writing. Figuring out whether or not poverty causes crime is an incredibly useful conclusion, as it would allow states to focus efforts at reducing rates of crime overall by increasing the overall wealth of the society. This is part one of a sample research paper that argues socioeconomic status is a clear risk factor for the likelihood of an individual getting involved in crime.
Socioeconomic status as a precursor to crime
Researchers have spent a great deal of time and written everything from essays to dissertations attempting to identify the factors most closely associated with arrest and punishment. While some of this research is motivated by the desire to identify risk factors, other research is motivated by the desire to identify why there are connections between arrests, punishments and certain factors. One such factor, which is frequently examined, is socioeconomic status (and whether it’s a cause of crime).
There have been multiple research studies examining the relationship between socioeconomic status and arrests and punishments. Based on the available research, it appears as though socioeconomic status has been identified as a clear risk factor contributing to arrest and punishment. This is regardless to the race or age of the individual. Although race and age have also been indicated as risk factors, socioeconomic status is independently considered a risk factor.
Causal link between crime and socioeconomic status
There are multiple research studies establishing the causal link between socioeconomic status and arrest. Elizabeth Brown and Mike Males, authors of “Does Age or Poverty Level Best Predict Criminal Arrest and Homicide Rates?” (2011), found that “poverty level is a significantly larger predictor of arrest and homicide risk than age.” They specifically looked at the data connecting age to arrest and then compared that to available data associated with socioeconomic status.
They found that while age was still a predicting factor, socioeconomic status was linked to arrest regardless of age. James Satterfield, et al. published the article “A 30-year Prospective Follow-Up Study of Hyperactive Boys with Conduct Problems: Adult Criminality” (2007) based on their research. Although they were basing their research on a sample of young men diagnosed with hyperactivity as kids, they found a connection between adult criminal behavior and low socioeconomic status (and general poverty). These studies demonstrate the positive connection between socioeconomic status and arrest. However, they do clearly identify whether the socioeconomic status is the cause of the behavior that led to the arrest, or if their socioeconomic status made them more likely to be arrest for criminal behavior.
Is it unfair targeting individuals with a low socioeconomic status?
Many have argued through extensive research papers that individuals with a low socioeconomic status are unfairly targeted by the justice system. In American society, poverty is seen as a form of deviance, which negatively affects the way individuals are viewed by members of society within power. David Newman, editor of Sociology: Exploring the Architecture of Everyday Life (2010), “poor people are more likely to get arrested, be formally charged with a crime, have their cases go to trial, get convicted, and receive harsher sentences than more affluent citizens.” Newman asserts that the statistical data available on overall arrest and conviction rates supports this statement (2010).
Some may argue that the statistical data supports the statement simply because poor people are not able to obtain the quality of lawyer that their more affluent counterparts may be able to afford, and the difference in legal representation is why they are more likely to be convicted. Surely, racial targeting is a clear problem as it stems from the general amount of racism present in social institutions.
However, this would not explain why they are more likely to be arrested and charged. These actions generally happen before the lawyers get involved in the case. Newman provided the following example to support this claim. “In 2002, 69 poor people in Atlanta who had been arrested on petty charges – shoplifting, trespassing, public drunkenness – and who couldn’t afford bail remained in jail for weeks and in some cases months, awaiting a lawyer and a court date” (Newman, 2002).
This example emphasizes the role of a good lawyer in a criminal situation. Depending on legal aid attorneys frequently deprives the poor from getting adequate representation. Newman’s research is also supported by David Levinson, author of Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment (2002). According to Levinson, “the criminal justice system overwhelmingly processes individuals who are marginalized and who occupy a low socioeconomic status” (2002). This assertion is based on the available statistic information and examples like the Ferguson shootings.
In addition to increased arrests, convictions, and sentences served, poor people are also more affected in the long term than their affluent counterparts. Some researchers have argued the current justice system is designed to keep poor people poor. Darren Wheelock and Christopher Uggen, authors of “Race, Poverty and Punishment: The Impact of Criminal Sanctions on Racial, Ethnic, and Socioeconomic Inequality” (2005), present a solid argument to support this claim. Wheelock and Uggen argue that “recent patterns of criminal punishment have led to the persistence, and in some instances, the worsening of racial and ethnic inequality in numerous social institutions” (2005).
Newman’s example of those who were arrested for petty crimes spending weeks and sometimes even months in jail creates a clear support for this argument. Spending extra time in jail, simply because the individual can not afford to get out leads to loss wages, possibly losses of employment, as well as the potential loss of housing as their bills go unpaid. Another area in which the poor are further disadvantages due to the sanctions imposed by the justice system is the ineligibility of certain housing and employment due to a felony conviction. It is arguably very difficult for an individual to find gainful employment when they are unable to get many jobs due to their felony status.
Another factor to be considered is the role of socioeconomic status in the sentences individuals receive. It has already been argued that poor people are more likely to be sentenced than their affluent counterparts. However, S. D’Alessio and L. Stolzenberg, authors of “Socioeconomic status and the sentencing of the traditional offender” (1993), asserted that based on their research, poor offenders receive longer sentences.
Their study examined the crimes, socioeconomic status and sentences of 2,760 inmates, and they found that those inmates coming from a low socioeconomic background were given longer sentences than their affluent counterparts (D’Alessio & Stolzenber, 1993). This was particularly true for drug related offenses (D’Alessio & Stolzenber, 1993). Although this research is ten years old, there is no clearly revealed research that has contradicted these findings since. It still appears to be true that despite strong criminal justice reform in 2016, poor people are more likely to get longer sentences than affluent people.