Over the years, punishment has been used as a form of deterring crime. Many of the deterrence theories have always been implicit in writings about punishment for decades. The origins of deterrence theory can be traced back to centuries when the death penalty was imposed often and for many offenses, some of which were quite trivial (Fagan & Meares, 2008). As such, deterrence theory came about when societies for the first time felt the obligation to offer rational justifications for the use of death penalty while rejecting other forms of judicial violence such as stoning, torture and the like. According to Bridges et al (1987), in most cases, an individual’s social status usually determined the harshness of that person’s punishment. For example, those people of a higher social class at timed did receive lesser punishment for the same crime as compared to those people of the servant class. Therefore, this paper examines the impact that social status has on punishment under criminal law.
Take a simple scenario. A young black male from the projects has been accused of committing murder. After going through the criminal justice system, the young man is found guilty of the murder charge and is convicted. He is sentenced to life imprisonment. On the other hand, a wealthy business magnate is also accused of killing his wife. Unlike the young black male’s case which was concluded much faster, his case drags on for a while but he is eventually found guilty and is handed a sentence. Now the main question is, “will both the offenders be subjected to a similar form of punishment?” While the young black might complete his sentence in prison, the wealthy business magnate might not see the inside of a prison.
This simple scenario indicates the impact of social status on punishment in the criminal justice system. Not only does social status affect punishment, but it also impacts on other criminal justice processes such as arrests, prosecution and conviction. As the saying goes, the rich become richer while the poor get prison. This is especially so when it comes to economic inequality. Simpson (2002) observes that as wages fell in the 1970s, the American penal system turned jail and prison time into common life events for low-skill and minority men. As a result, economic conditions of a particular individual, community or society affect the extent of carceral punishment.
Kelly (2000) observes that economic inequality influences the scale of punishment in 2 main ways. First, rising inequality increases the incidence of crimes at the bottom of the social hierarchy, and thus generating more arrests, convictions and prison admissions. Economists and sociologists commonly hold that the disadvantaged are more involved in criminal activities, and thus increased economic inequality can be expected to have aggregate effects on imprisonment (Fagan & Meares, 2008). In his examination from an economic perspective, Freeman (1996) observed that young black males in the 80s and 90s resulted to crime as a response to the decline in employment opportunities. Since then, contact with the criminal law seems to be a regular event of ‘ghetto’ life. This indicates that crime rates tend to be high among individuals or communities that are disadvantaged economically.
Second, sociologists tend to argue that increasing inequality directly enlarges the penal population. As such, criminal law functions not only to control crime, but also to contain marginal populations that are perceived as threatening by voters and elites (Western et al., 2003). Therefore, there is a direct link between patterns of economic inequality and criminal punishment. These aspects identify a critical aspect in the criminal justice system whereby low-income individuals and minority groups tend to be targets of the law enforcement agencies. Most arrests occur in low-income neighborhoods. This also explains the high populations of minorities in American prisons. African Americans constitute the majority of prison populations, and yet they form a small percent of the total American population.
For example, according to Western et al (2003), though the risk of going to jail or prison strongly grew for Black, Hispanic and White groups for the past 20 years up to the year 2000, the incarceration rate among black men reached almost 8%. Over the same period, black men were about 7 to 8 times more likely to be in jail or prison than white men. Therefore, the issue of social status is not only tied to income inequalities individuals, but also the income inequalities that greatly affect the minority communities such as Blacks and Hispanics. Usually, these inequalities are responsible for other issues that face the criminal justice system such as racial profiling.
Therefore, there is a strong relationship between social status and punishment in the criminal justice system. This relationship can be explained in two main ways. One, ‘lower classes’ of people are more likely to be involved in criminal activities. People who have fewer economic opportunities tend to turn to crime to supplement their legitimate incomes. This leads to more arrests, prosecutions and convictions of people of lower social status. Two, people of higher economic status are likely to receive lesser punishments as compared to those who are of a lower social status.
Bridges, G.S., Crutchfield, R.D. & Simpson, E.E. (1987) Crime, Social Structure and Criminal Punishment: White and Nonwhite Rates of Imprisonment. Social Problems, 1987; 34(4): 345-361.
Fagan, J. & Meares, T.L. (2008) Punishment, Deterrence and Social Control: The Paradox of Punishment in Minority Communities. Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, 2008; 6: 173-229.
Freeman, R.B. (1996) Why Do So Many Young American Men Commit Crimes and What Might We Do About It? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 1996; 10: 22- 45.
Kelly, M. (2000) Inequality and Crime. Review of Economics and Statistices, 2000; 82: 530-539.
Simpson, S.S. (2002) Corporate Crime, Law, and Social Control. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Western, B., Kleykamp, M. & Rosenfeld, J. (2003) Crime, Punishment, and American Inequality. Princeton University, June 2003, pp. 1-49.