Socioeconomic Status in Crime and Punishment

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I. Does socioeconomic status affect crime and punishment?

a. The effect of socioeconomic status on arrests.

b. The effect of socioeconomic status on sentencing.

c. Socioeconomic effects on crime and punishment begin in childhood.

II. The effect of socioeconomic status on arrests.

a. The first point of contact for suspects is with the police and that interaction sets the tone for the entire criminal justice system experience that follows. The manner and reason for arrest have a significant effect on the future perception of that suspect, by his peers and by a jury, and any evident bias is a dangerous thing for the reputation of law enforcement. Studies have returned mixed information regarding the bias of police officers in making arrests, but it is evident that prejudice based on socioeconomic status does sometimes occur.

b. Belasic (n.d.) raised the question of police education more than any other factor in determining fairness of police behavior while Weisburd (2000) found that race had a significant effect on the perception of fair treatment among police officers; white officers perceived police to be fairer and minority officers perceived police to be biased against minority and poor suspects (pg. 12). Cattaneo (2010) found that the only socioeconomic factor that affected the experience of citizens in police interactions in domestic disturbances was education. More education led to more negative interaction (pg. 247) and Decker (1981) demonstrated that police were not able to improve public perception of police officers in any significant way. Rather, public perception of the police was a part of local culture (pg, 85). The article “Race, ethnicity, and the criminal justice system” (2007) argued that while there was a significantly higher representation of minorities and members of lower socioeconomic classes in the criminal justice system, it was not consistently a result of any measurable bias in the legal system at any point (pg. 21). Tapia (2011) found that there was a strong correlation between low socioeconomic status and gang membership in youths, but did not find that this relationship necessarily communicated to higher likelihood of arrests (pg. 1429) while it was shown that low socioeconomic status was closely connected to drunk driving, indicating not a bias on the part of police but an inclination toward certain types of crime (Hyman, 1972, 157).

c. The difficulty with determining if there is, in fact, socioeconomic bias in the behavior of police is primarily one of perception. Citizens have a cultural perspective in spite of facts, but the facts are complicated and difficult to interpret. Even among police, there is disagreement about fair treatment. There are no clear indicators that police universally treat suspects of a lower socioeconomic status unfairly, however.

III. The effect of socioeconomic status on sentencing.

a. Fairness in sentencing is considerably easier to study and analyze than fairness of police behavior. Court settings are more closely monitored and less subjective than arrest situations. The data indicates that sentencing is significantly affected by both racial and socioeconomic factors.

b. D’Alessio and Stolzenberg (1993) found that the lower a criminal’s socioeconomic status, the longer their prison sentence for major crimes (pg. 75). In support of this, it has been shown that members of minorities, typically associated with lower socioeconomic statuses, are sentenced more severely than white criminals who have been convicted of similar crimes (“Race, ethnicity”, 2007). Both studies found that having a previous record was the strongest indicator of severe sentencing.

c. Though there is a clear connection between low socioeconomic and more severe sentencing, the repeat offense factor cannot be ignored. More research should be considered to further explore this interpretation.

IV. Socioeconomic effects on crime and punishment begin in childhood.

a. Adults learn how to behave while they are children. Children who are subjected to low socioeconomic status and see crime as the only viable option or possible way out of low socioeconomic status are significantly more vulnerable to arrest and prosecution. Those who are raised in low socioeconomic status are most relevant to this discussion because socioeconomic status is a fundamental part of their worldview, not just a temporary condition.

b. Though it has been shown that youth in low socioeconomic status are more inclined toward gang membership, that does not necessarily indicate that they are inclined toward criminal activity (Tapia, 2011, pg. 1428). Though delinquency rates are higher in children from low socioeconomic classes, Larzelere and Patterson (2006) demonstrated that this relationship could be entirely negated by parental intervention (pg. 320).

c. The relationship between low socioeconomic status and youth delinquency is not simple or clear. Since parental intervention can entirely mitigate the increased likelihood of delinquency in children from low socioeconomic status, the blame should be laid elsewhere for the relationship between socioeconomic status and inclination toward crime.

V. Topic

a. The three major issues to consider when discussing the role of socioeconomic status on crime are the two statistical points of interaction between criminals and the legal system: arrest and trial; and the inclination toward crime caused by low socioeconomic status which logically begins in childhood, for true members of the low socioeconomic class.

b. The authors consulted to discuss this issue and its various factors were R.S. Belasic; L.B. Cattaneo; S.H. Decker; S.J. D’Alessio and L. Stolzenberg; J.J. Escarce; M.M. Hyman; R.E. Larzalere and G.R. Patterson; M. Tapia; D. Weisburd; and the American Sociological Association.

c. There are no clear conclusions about the precise role of socioeconomic status in criminal arrest and prosecution. Though it is clearly a factor, studies have shown conflicting data about whether it is a cause or simply a common factor of criminal behavior. Because of this, it is difficult to determine if police and the courts are biased or simply part of the statistics, reflecting the higher likelihood of criminal behavior in the lower socioeconomic classes. 


Belasic, R. S. (n.d.). Police Integrity In Law Enforcement: Are We Really Doing Enough? [PDF]. Retrieved from Florida Department of Law Enforcement website:,-randy-research-paper-pdf.aspx

Cattaneo, L. B. (2010, June). The role of socioeconomic status in interactions with police among a national sample of women experiencing intimate partner violence. American Journal of Psychology, 45, 247-58. doi:10.1007/s10464-010-9297-x

Decker, S. H. (1981, March). Citizen Attitudes Toward the Police - A Review of Past Findings and Suggestions for Future Policy. Journal of Police Science and Administration, 9(1), 80-87.

D'Alessio, S. J., Stolzenberg, L. (1993). Socioeconomic status and the sentencing of the traditional offender. Journal of Criminal Justice, 21(1), 61–77. doi:10.1016/0047-2352(93)90006-9

Escarce, J. J. (2003, October). Socioeconomic Status and the Fates of Adolescents. Health Serv Res, 38(5), 1229–1234. doi:10.1111/1475-6773.00173

Hyman, M. M. (1972, March). Ascertaining police bias in arrests for drunken driving. Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 33(1A), 148-159

Larzelere, R. E., Patterson, G.R. (2006, March 7). Parental Management: Mediator of the Effect of Socioeconomics Status on Early Delinquency. Criminology, 28(2), 301-324. doi:10.1111/j.1745-9125.1990.tb01327.x

Race, ethnicity, and the criminal justice system [Lecture Series]. (2007, September). Retrieved from

Tapia, M. (2011, December). U.S. Juvenile Arrests: Gang Membership, Social Class, and Labeling Effects. Youth & Society, 43(4), 1407-1432. doi:10.1177/0044118X10386083

Weisburd, D. (2000, May). Police Attitudes Toward Abuse of Authority: Findings From a National Study [Brief]. Retrieved from