Living in a Social World
Psy 324: Advanced Social Psychology
Spring, 1998

Crime and Socioeconomic Status
Nathan Brown

class4.jpg (51486 bytes)   The perception of the average criminal that many Americans hold, is someone who is male, a minority and a member of a low socioeconomic class. People develop this stereotype of criminals by examining those that are currently incarcerated (Ruby & Bringham, 1996). However the image of the criminal population one sees in our nation’s jails and prisons is distorted by the shape of the criminal justice system itself. That is, in the United States criminal justice system for the same criminal behavior, the poor are more likely: to be arrested, to be charged, to be convicted, to be sentenced to prison, and to be given longer prison terms (Reiman, 1997). The United States criminal justice system is in effect a funneling process from arrest to sentencing. This allows socioeconomic discrimination to occur at every stage of the process and therefore shapes the population of criminals that reach prison.

    First it must be said that the poor do commit crimes and most of the poor that are in prison are guilty of crimes for which they were sentenced. That is, not all poor are innocent victims persecuted by the evil rich. As listed in the FBI Index, the poor do commit a greater portion of the crimes against person and property than the upper and middle classes do. Geen (Tesser, 1995) states that aggression among the poor resulting in crime is largely due to the "gross inequalities between the very rich and the very poor."  Geen suggests that the motivation underlying the criminal behavior of the poor results from a feeling that their situation is hopeless and that they have nothing left to lose.  It is important to note, however, that general crime rates do not increase with poverty rates (see chart).

    Although the poor do have higher rates of person and property crime, the problem is that the system is not consistent in the crimes in which they pursue. The President’s Crime Prevention Commission conducted a survey of 10,000 households and discovered that "91 percent of all Americans have violated laws that could have subjected them to a term of imprisonment at one time in their lives"(Silver, 1968). The difference is that white collar crime is not pursued as much, and when it is pursued the penalties are not as harsh and therefore the accused doesn’t end up in prison.

diisent4.jpg (28426 bytes)[chart courtesy of the Calvert Institute]

    White collar crimes involve crimes such as: fraud, tax law violation and embezzlement (Chamber of Commerce, 1994). These crimes are much more widespread than those crimes of the poor. It is estimated that white collar crimes cost the United States 208.5 billion dollars per year (Reiman, 1997). This is much more than the cost of crimes committed by the poor. Also white collar criminals are rarely arrested or charged because the system has developed kindlier ways of dealing with the more delicate sensibilities of its higher-class clientele. For robbery, burglary and larceny the percent sent to prison are 98%, 86% and 47% respectively. While for fraud, tax law violations and embezzlement the percent sent to prison are much lower: 56%, 51% and 50%(Sourcebook, 1994). Finally when white collar criminals are charged their sentences are lighter than those of crimes that are more characteristic of low socioeconomic status. For crimes of the poor, robbery, burglary and larceny the average sentence (in months) is: 101.5, 52.9, and 18.6. However for crimes of the affluent, fraud, tax law violation and embezzlement the average sentence (in months) is: 22.6, 22.2 and 16.3 (Sourcebook, 1994).

    There are many reasons that can be offered to account for the differences in police treatment of the poor versus police treatment of those citizens of higher socioeconomic status. For one, the poor have less privacy. That is, what others can do in their houses or backyards the poor do on the street making them much more visual to police. The most important thing however is that police training conditions officers to be suspicious of certain kinds of people. This means that they already have a cognitive schema of the type of person they are looking for and thus are more likely to detect their criminality. These schemas are formed from unique experiences with certain types of people and are activated when dealing with those people, thus increasing the efficiency with which information about others is processed (Markus & Zajonc, 1985). Ambiguous or schema-inconsistent information can be erroneously interpreted as consistent with the schema (Taylor & Crocker, 1981) and schemas can also lead to the filling of informational gaps with schema-consistent information (Hamilton, 1980). This means that police officers, along with others viewing a situation through the biasing effects of an criminal schema containing those with low socioeconomic status, may overlook or reinterpret action of people with low socioeconomic status that do not fit the criminal schema. Also, they may overemphasize actions that do fit the schema and interpret ambiguous information, such as nervousness, as consistent with the schema.  Officers have many stereotypes about a poor youth’s family. "A police officer’s decision to book a poor youth and release a middle-class youth reflects either the officer’s judgment that the higher-class youngster’s family will be more likely and more able to discipline him or her than the lower-class youngster’s" (Reiman, 1997).

    There seems also, to be a difference in the way the court system views criminals of different socioeconomic status. Both judges and jurors seem to make the fundamental attribution error (Reiman, 1997) when determining motives. They are more likely to attribute the criminal behavior of people of low socioeconomic status to their dispositions, while they attribute the criminal behavior of those of high socioeconomic status to their situation. An example of this is drug use. When someone of low status gets arrested for possession of drugs they are seen as a drug abuser and are likely to get sentenced to jail, whereas when someone of high status is arrested for drugs their behavior is seen as coming from the situation they are in. Rock stars or professional athletes who are arrested for possession of narcotics are more likely to get probation or sent to rehabilitation, than are those of a lower socioeconomic status. In example of this is Michael Irvin of the Dallas Cowboys. Also, professional athletes are more likely not to get prosecuted for crimes that they commit as is the case with Latrell Sprewell.

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    Brigham, J.C. and Ruby, C.L. (1996). A criminal schema: the role of chronicity, race and socioeconomic status in law enforcement officials’ perceptions of others. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 26, 95-109

    Chamber of Commerce of the United States (1994). A handbook on white-collar crime. New York: Routledge Publishing.

    Hamilton, D.L., Katz, L.B., & Leirer, V.O. (1980). Organizational
processes in impression formation. Person memory: The cognitive basis of social perception. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum

    Markus, H., & Zajonc, R.B. (1985). The cognitive perspective in social
psychology. Handbook of social psychology. New York: Random House.

    Reiman, J. (1997). The rich get richer and the poor get prison: ideology, class, and criminal justice. Massachusetts: Viacom Company.

    Silver, I (1968). Introduction to the avon edition of the challenge of crime in a free society. New York.

    Taylor, S.E., & Crocker, J. (1981). Schematic basis of social information processing. Social cognition, The ontario symposium on personaltiy and social psychology. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Tesser, A. (Ed.) (1995).  Advanced Social Psychology.  Boston, McGraw-Hill.

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Social Psychology / Miami University (Ohio USA). Last revised: Tuesday, March 11, 2014 at 23:50:30 . This document has been accessed 1 times since 4 Jan 2009. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman