The Effect of Socioeconomic Status on Arrest and Punishment

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Researchers have spent a great deal of time 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. 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 raced and age have also been indicated as risk factors, socioeconomic is independently considered a risk factor. 

There are multiple research studies establishing the causal link between socioeconomic status, crime, arrest, and punishment. 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. 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. 

Many have argued 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. 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. 

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 & Stolzenberg, 1993). This was particularly true for drug related offences (D’Alessio & Stolzenberg, 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 poor people are more likely to get longer sentences than affluent people. 

Despite the available research, there are those that argue the criminal justice system works and that justice really is blind. However, Paul Wright, author of “The Crime of Being Poor” refutes this argument by pointing out the flaw in this line of thinking. He argues that the idea that everyone is treated equally under the law is a criminal justice myth and that the social constructs create situations where poor people are breaking the law. For example, in many cities, it is illegal for people to sleep under bridges or beg in the streets (Wright). While it is true this law applies to all people, it is directed at the poor. Affluent people would have no need or reason to sleep under bridges or beg in the streets. Barbara Ehrenreich, author of “Is It Now a Crime to Be Poor?” points out that laws against sitting, sleeping, lying down, and sleeping make it nearly impossible for the homeless to satisfy their basic biological need to rest their bodies (2009). The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty has asserted that laws and ordinances targeting the poor and homeless have been on the rise since 2006 (Ehrenreich, 2009). Once again, many cities leaders deny these laws target the homeless because they apply to all people. 

There are significant cultural aspects to the connection between socioeconomic status and arrests. As mentioned earlier, poverty is often seen as a form of deviance in American culture. Likewise, the experience of jail is often seen as a part of life for certain demographics. Adam Gopnik, author of “The Caging of America” (2012), discusses the cultural side of this issue. “For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones” (Gopnik, 2012). The increase in arrests and sentencing, as well as the increase in offences targeting the poor has led to a dramatic increase in the number of people being incarcerated. “In 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one” (Gopnik, 2012). The increase in incarceration increases the perpetuation of poverty. As discussed earlier, the act of being arrested and incarcerated negatively affects an individual’s ability to get a good paying job and work their way out of poverty. The criminal justice system creates a circular pattern of poverty and criminal activity. 

The connections between socioeconomic status and arrest and sentencing have been well established throughout literature in a multitude of different ways. Research has determined socioeconomic status to be a predicting factor in future arrests. Although these results may lead readers to believe poor people are simply more likely to commit crimes. The disproportionate number of poor people being arrested for petty crimes is undeniable. Additionally, the creation of laws that target the actions of the poor and homeless make it nearly impossible for them to survive without breaking the law. There is also a strong amount of research that suggests the criminal justice system is designed in such a way that it forces people to stay in poverty. The increase in laws targeting the poor and homeless supports this argument because it is taking poor and homeless people that are just out trying to survive and criminalizes their actions. The perpetuation of poverty also forces more people into criminal activity as their options become extremely narrow. Finally, there is cultural support for the current system within society. Poverty is often viewed as deviant behavior, which makes it easy for people to assume that the poor and homeless are more apt to committing crimes. They also have the “not in my backyard” mentality. While reasonable people understand the homeless need to sleep somewhere, they do not want them sleeping in their cities because it is unsightly. 


Brown, E., & Males, M. (2011). Does Age or Poverty Level Best Predict Criminal Arrest and Homicide Rate? A Preliminary Investigation. Justice Policy Journal, 8(1), 1-30.

D'Alessio, S., & Stolzenberg, L. (1993). SOCIOECONOMIC STATUS AND THE SENTENCING OF THE TRADITIONAL OFFENDER. Journal of Criminal Justice, 21(1), 61-78.

Ehrenreich, B. (2009, August 8). Op-Ed Contributor - Is It Now a Crime to Be Poor? - The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. Retrieved April 14, 2013, from

Fite, P., Wynn, P., & Pardini, D. (2009). Explaining Discrepancies in Arrest Rates Between Black and White Male Juveniles. J Consult Clin Psychology, 77(5), 916-927.

Levinson, D. (2002). Encyclopedia of crime and punishment. Thousand Oaks, Ca.: Sage Publications.

Newman, D. M. (2012). Sociology: exploring the architecture of everyday life (9th [ed.] ed.). Los Angeles: SAGE.

Satterfield, J., Faller, K., Crinella, F., Schell, A., Swanson, J., & Homer, L. (2007). A 30-Year Prospective Follow-up Study of Hyperactive Boys with Conduct Problems: Adult Criminality. J. AM. ACAD. Child Adolescent Psychiatry, 46(5), 601-610.

Wheelock, D., & Uggen, C. (2006). Race, Poverty and Punishment: The Impact of Criminal Sanctions on Racial, Ethnic, and Socioeconomic Inequality. National Poverty Center Working Paper Series, 6, 1-49.

Wright, P. (n.d.). The Crime of Being Poor. Prison Legal News. Retrieved from