The sad and unfortunate truth is that crime has long been synonymous with the working class and the uneducated. Whether as a victim or perpetrator, young people from low socioeconomic backgrounds are seemingly far more likely to experience crime in their lives. Should we accept that this is just the way things are, or is it a misrepresentation of the statistics?

The Crime Statistics for England and Wales report that for the period of May 2020 - March 2021, just by living in a more deprived area, you're over 40% more likely to experience crime, a statistic adjusted for population size. Comparing two towns, Jaywick - frequently named one of the UK's most deprived towns, and Wokingham, which has recently been named one of the UK's better off areas, really puts this into perspective. In Jaywick, 2.2% of the population experienced crime in August 2021 compared to just 0.1% of Wokingham. So even with over 10 times the population, Wokingham is still, in theory, a safer place to live.

It will not come as a surprise to learn that most people in prison have had a tough upbringing in a deprived area. A Ministry of Justice report into prisoners' childhood and family backgrounds found a significant proportion of prisoners had grown up in poverty and had a comprehensive history of social exclusion. People who were excluded or played truant from school, lived in care, witnessed violence during childhood, or had other family members in prisons while growing up are all far more overrepresented in the prison system than the general population. To look at just one of these factors, 2% of the general population have lived in local authority care at some point in their lives compared to 26% of prisoners.

Could the way the media reports on crimes be giving the working class a bad name? Crimes commonly committed by the working class, known as blue-collar crimes, such as violence and robbery, are typically more visible to the public eye. On the other hand, white-collar crime typically involves offences such as fraud and corporate crimes, which happen behind closed doors, often for the offender's personal gain. Due to their nature, these crimes are more likely to be committed by the middle or upper class. But, blue-collar crimes, like the violence and destruction during the 2011 London and Manchester riots, dominated the media. Whichever TV channel or newspaper website you viewed, the faces of the young rioters were being shown in the hopes of catching them and ensuring they were punished, taking every opportunity to sensationalise events.

Meanwhile, crimes such as fraud, which has far more offenders from middle-class backgrounds, do not seem to get as much coverage. These media representations then fuel how the criminal justice system deals with certain crimes, too, and determines prison sentences. If the media puts the spotlight more on specific crimes, like those committed by the working class, it is natural for the public to expect harsher sentences to accompany them. When this happens, prisons can end up full of people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Reiman and Leighton's aptly titled book, The Rich get Richer and the Poor get Prison [1], noted that 99% of burglary convictions lead to a prison sentence compared to just 63% of fraud cases. This could be because fraudsters are viewed as less of an immediate danger to the public, but committing fraud still has a broader social impact, especially when taxes aren't paid or innocent people lose money. Significantly, a known public figure, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was recently given a one-year sentence for illegally financing his 2012 election campaign. However, this case has had little publicity despite Sarkozy still being an influential figure. Sarkozy was even allowed to serve his 1-year sentence at home with a security tag rather than in prison.

When we think of major crimes, such as homicide, typically only violent altercations between individuals come to mind, not deaths caused by negligent management in workplaces. However, a manual labourer is significantly more likely to suffer from a fatal accident at work compared to a senior manager. In an average year in the UK, Tombs and Whyte [2] found that while 700 deaths are caused by typical murders, over 1600 people die at work or through health issues caused by the workplace. However, since The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 was introduced, less than 30 convictions have been made. Even then, the punishment for these crimes won't result in prison sentences for individuals. Only the company itself is punished by way of hefty fines. In a similar way to fraud, this particular crime is committed almost exclusively by well-off business owners. Simply search for 'workplace death convictions' on Google and the results that surface will never be high-profile cases and are never reports from influential newspapers or news websites. Where we could probably all name recent murder cases or serial killers from the last 15 years, how many of us could name a memorable case relating to a death in the workplace? Because these crimes are never reported, we don't even think about them happening. To demonstrate this point, take a look at Safety & Health Practioner's top 10 health and safety prosecutions of 2020 and see if you can remember any of them in the news.

Why does the media report crimes in a particular way?

Considering most journalists come from well-off backgrounds, perhaps it is in their interest to focus on the wrongdoings of a 'lower class' than themselves and simply ignore or play down crimes committed by those of a similar background. The same could be suggested for the criminal justice system too. People in higher socioeconomic groups can afford the best legal advice and may even have connections in all the right places to help ensure a lesser punishment. On the flip side, those with little or no income may struggle to even access legal aid and are very unlikely to have connections in high places.

So, how do we shift this pattern of overrepresented crime in the working-class community?

Part of what needs to change is how we often neglect to publicise and punish white-collar crimes. Currently, social class and position can, in certain circumstances, enable people to avoid harsher sentences. For example, take a look at journalism and the criminal justice system. If people from different class backgrounds were more proportionally represented, it might eventually impact how the general public views various crimes.

Problems that specifically affect the working class also need to be resolved. Currently, 23% of the UK population lives in relative poverty; a statistic that should shame our government. With poverty as a significant risk factor for crime, investment in our poorest is a sure way to reduce criminal activity. Climbing out of poverty without support is tough. It is difficult to find employment that pays a wage you can support yourself and possibly a family on, without a good education. But going back into education as an adult can be challenging with the pressure of earning money while gaining more qualifications. Maybe a better adult education and training system is the answer? The universal credit system is currently set up to make the lives of our poorest citizens even more miserable and downtrodden. A five week-wait for the first universal credit payment and, in more recent times, the removal of the £20 uplift, despite significant inflation, pushes people into further misery and debt. A fairer welfare system that does not punish people for the circumstances they find themselves in and promotes adult education, along with a higher minimum wage, could also help stop the cycle of crime.

This isn't just about money, though. We need to think about how people interact socially. In the age of technology, we seem to be connected to everyone and no one simultaneously. If people do not feel like they are a part of their local community, why should they care if there is a high crime rate, or if they take part in the crime themselves?

The gap between the rich and poor is ever-increasing, even in small towns, and the consequences of this will never be justifiable. While there are criminals in every class group, crime is more heavily associated with the working class. This is due not only to them being exposed to poverty, social isolation, and other risk factors that make them more likely to experience and commit crime, but also because the crimes they do commit receive far more publicity.

It is time we started applying attention to those who commit crime in a more equal manner to ensure justice is delivered fairly. Social position should never be a benefit, or a drawback, when it comes to how people are treated when they commit a crime or how the law is applied.

[1] Reiman, J., Leighton, P., (2016). The rich get richer and the poor get prison, Routledge.

[2] Tombs, S. and Whyte, D., (2007). Safety Crimes, Willian Publishing.

Sasha Lyon
Sasha Lyon

Full time copywriter, part time forensic psychology student. Interested in the way crime affects society and social issues affecting women.

Link copied

The Fledger was born out of a deep-seated belief in the power of young voices. Get relevant views on topics you care about direct to your inbox each week.

Have an article in mind? The Fledger is open to voices from all backgrounds. Get in touch and give your words flight.

Write the Contrast
Two birds using typewriters