Crime in the United States
Crime is any act that violates a criminal law. Each year, the FBI issues a Uniform Crime Report (UCI) with crime statistics gathered from every police department across the United States. The following types of crimes are included in the report:
Property Crimes: Burglary, Larceny Theft, Motor-vehicle Theft and Arson.
Violent Crimes: Murder/Manslaughter, Aggravated Assault, Forcible Rape and Robbery.
In addition to the crimes listed above, the FBI also includes data about hate crimes. A hate crime is any offense committed against a person, property or society motivated by a bias against race/ethnicity, religion, disability, or sexual orientation. The majority of hate crimes in the United States are motivated by a racial bias. Shortly after September 11th, for instance, there was an increase in the number of hate crimes against people who were or appeared to be of Arab descent.
One of the problems with the Uniform Crimes Report is that not all crimes get reported. In fact, Crime Victimization Surveys indicate that only half of all crime committed actually gets reported. If this is the case, what factors contribute to who gets caught and who doesn’t? When police go into low income communities, they are more likely to look for someone to arrest. They rarely enter middle class and upper middle class neighborhoods suspicious of wrongdoing. Many point out that there is a bias in our criminal justice system that favors the wealthy and punishes the poor.
Over half of all crimes are considered “Non Index Crimes.” These crimes include gambling, prostitution, embezzlement, illegal possession of drugs, vagrancy, corruption of a public official, and so on. The FBI rarely collects statistics on these types of crimes. Many criminologists point out that the focus on Index crimes (Property Crimes and Violent Crimes) is further proof of the inherent bias in how we treat deviance in our society. Most of the Index crimes committed are by members of the lower classes. African Americans and Latinos are also overrepresented as offenders among Index Crimes. If we look at Non Index Crimes, however, this is not as likely to be the case.
Although Property Crimes cause a significant amount of monetary damage, they do not compare to the amount of money lost as a result of elite deviance. There are three types of elite deviance:
- Corporate crime
- White collar crime
- Organized crime
Conflict theorists have tried to shed light on the need to study elite deviance because it is more harmful to society. Often, a single case of corporate crime can cost more monetarily than all property crimes combined. According to this perspective, elite deviance is a serious problem in the United States, but is rarely treated the same as “street crime.”
So why does the FBI ignore elite deviance even though it causes more potential harm to the public? Acts defined as deviant in every society have as much to do with those who are in power as it does with those who are marginalized and powerless. Therefore, an in-depth understanding of deviant behavior cannot be achieved without looking first at the social, political, and economic context within which it arises. Some theorists point out that justice is not distributed evenly in our society. Many have suggested, for instance, that police are more likely to arrest someone from a poor neighborhood because their arrest is more likely to end in a conviction. Those who are powerless cannot afford an attorney, and their cases usually end in a plea bargain where they exchange a guilty plea for a lesser sentence. Elites, however, are more likely to cost the state more money due to the fact that their lawyers can tie their cases up in court for years.
According to the Conflict Perspective, the criminal justice system reflects the interests of those in power. In other words, the behaviors labeled as deviant and punished most severely in our society are those that are a threat to the capitalist system. Property crimes are a greater threat because those who commit them are usually uneducated and unemployed. As Richard Quinney pointed out, behaviors that threaten the ruling class are labeled as deviant. Those in poverty are more likely to engage in these behaviors due to discrimination and lack of employment opportunities. Once they are arrested, a stigma, or powerfully negative label, is attached and society internalizes the ideology that these groups are harmful to society and should be punished.
But are these groups more harmful to society? According to Thio (2006), those who are in power are more likely to engage in deviant behavior for several reasons. First, they are more likely to have higher aspirations that are virtually impossible to be realized legitimately. Second, they have greater opportunities at their disposal to steal from the company or cheat on their taxes. And third, they are subjected to weaker social control.
Not only is deviance more likely to occur among the wealthy and powerful, it is also more harmful. Consider the following examples below:
- In the 1980s, The Savings and Loan Scandal cost taxpayers and estimated $600 billion.
- In 1987, stockbroker Michael Milken also known as “The Junk Bond King” made a yearly salary of $550 million committing racketeering and business fraud. He paid an estimated $900 million in fines and settlements after his trial.
- The Bridgestone Firestone Company knowingly sold unsafe tires to the public resulting in an estimated 271 deaths in the United States.
- Researchers estimate that the annual number of cancer deaths caused by exposure to dangerous chemicals in the workplace equal about 50,000.
- The Enron Scandal cost an estimated $50 billion: more damage than all of the property crimes that year combined.