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Class and Crime - Early Work

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For the first half of the twentieth century, the question of the link between class and crime was examined in three basic ways. First, investigators looked at the impact of economic conditions on crime rates, asking if crime increases with an economic downturn. A basic assumption in this approach was that poor economic conditions are harder on the poor than the middle class and that this produces increased crime. A second approach examined the social class of prisoners or others formally identified as offenders to ask about the social class backgrounds of people convicted of crime. Generally, convicts were and are poor. In a third approach, crime rates for specific geographic areas were compared with a set of social and economic characteristics of the areas. These studies asked if areas with indications of high poverty rates and low social class were also areas with high crime rates. In general the answers to this question were yes. All three of these approaches probably influenced the development of theories either attempting to explain the reasons for the class-crime relationship or assuming such a relationship (Merton; Cohen; Cloward and Ohlin).

Some of the earliest empirical efforts to study class and crime used measures of the general economic conditions of regions of a country in combination with official crime rates for the regions to ask if poor economic conditions were associated with high crime rates (Bonger). Although those carrying out these studies often found that poor regions had high crime rates, they also found poor regions in which the crime rates were low. This led Bonger to conclude that the gap in income and wealth between the rich and poor might be more important than the overall poverty or affluence of an area.

When similar studies were done for areas within cities in the early decades of the twentieth century, most suggested a clear link between crime or delinquency rates and the social and economic characteristics of urban areas. By the 1940s there was general agreement that both property crimes and crimes of violence were higher in areas with low average incomes, high transiency, low educational achievement, and high unemployment (Shaw and McKay).

In addition, examinations of the characteristics of prisoners during the first half of the twentieth century indicated that a disproportionate percentage were poor, uneducated, and unemployed before incarceration (Glueck and Glueck). In general, most of these early examinations suggested there was a class-crime link. Moreover, since the relationship could be interpreted as showing that poverty and unemployment produced much ordinary crime, the findings at the early studies were consistent with conclusions reached by a number of philosophers and social thinkers.

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