The criminal justice reform movement has shined a light on the inhumane conditions in our prisons, and the horrific killings of unarmed people by the police. This movement has done important work in demonstrating the needless brutality involved in our system, particularly as it is directed against marginalized groups: the poor and racial minorities.
Recently, I examined the economic backgrounds of those killed by police this year. I found that between January and May 2015, 95 percent of police killings occurred in neighborhoods with average incomes under $100,000. There were no killings in neighborhoods with incomes of $200,000 or above.
I received many responses to this article, but one of the most common was that the wealthy simply don’t commit as much street crime. In other words, the rich behave themselves, so the police don’t bother them.
There is truth to this argument in one dimension: street crime. It has long been consensus among sociologists and economists that high levels of poverty and inequality are associated with various street crimes such as homicide and assault.
However, this doesn’t actually mean that the poor and middle class are harming more people, or stealing more of their property, or destroying more of their wealth. It is a little-known fact that the richest Americans not only steal more wealth through white-collar crime, but their crimes also lead to the deaths of more people. Yet despite the destructiveness of rich criminals, our criminal justice system does not respond in the same way it tackles crimes by poorer Americans.
How the Rich Commit Crime
Jeffrey Reiman is a criminologist, sociologist and philosopher based at American University. In 1979, Reiman published the first edition of the book, The Rich Get Richer, The Poor Get Prison. The book had a simple but counterintuitive thesis: the rich are actually committing society’s most destructive crimes in terms of both financial damage and loss of human lives, but our criminal justice system is harshest toward the poorest Americans, whose crimes inflict the least damage.
As time rolled on, and mass incarceration of mostly poor and working-class people skyrocketed while prosecution of white-collar crimes dialed down, Reiman’s thesis has gained steam. With his co-researchers, he has released new editions of the book with updated statistics regularly, the most recent edition in 2013.
Although much of his statistical work is somewhat outdated in 2015, the wider narrative is as relevant today as it was when his book was originally published.
He begins his explanation of the difference between deadly white-collar crime and far less deadly street crime in the second paragraph:
“If it takes you an hour to read this chapter, by the time you reach the last page, two of your fellow citizens will have been murdered. During that same time, more than six Americans will die as a result of unhealthy or unsafe conditions in the workplace. Although these work- related deaths were due to human actions, they are not called murders. Why not? Doesn’t a crime by any other name still cause misery and suffering? What’s in a name?”
That is the crux of the issue: we refer to street crime as crime, and tackle it with the most blunt police state instruments, but we don’t respond the same way to the kinds of crimes elites commit through indifference or hunger for greater profits.
Using data ranging from 1992 to 2006, Reiman estimates there are 55,325 “occupation-related deaths” per year – this includes deaths caused by unsafe work conditions, needless exposure to disease and other forms of death that would be a direct result of employer negligence, but does not amount to the total number of negligent workplace deaths, which is difficult to compute.
Compare this to deaths from common street crime, referred to as homicides; in 2006, this number was around 15,000. Reiman writes that the “risk to occupational disease and death falls only on members of the labor force, whereas the risk of crime falls on the whole population, from infants to the elderly. Because the civilian labor force is about half (50.8) percent of the total population…to get a true picture of the relative threat posed by occupational diseases compared with that posed by [what we refer to as] crimes, we should multiply the crime statistics by half.”
If you do that, even discounting bad luck and errors on the part of the employee, you’d be comparing tens of thousands of occupational deaths to around 7,500 homicides. That would mean your job — through the negligence of your employer — is seven times more likely to kill you than common street crime is. Reiman concludes that this means “workers are more likely to stay alive and healthy in the face of the danger from the underworld than from the workworld.”
The primary difference between the deaths that occur in the “workworld” vs. the “underworld” is simply the perspective our society – which is tilted towards the worldview of the rich – gives them. A poor mugger killing you after a fight over your wallet is considered a grave crime, whereas a worker being killed because their employer didn’t spend the money necessary to give them proper safety is considered routine.
This is something that is immediately obvious if you look at how these crimes are punished. According to PBS Frontline, the average time served for a homicide is 71 months (nearly six years in prison). The Occupational Safety and Health Administration as well as various state agencies are in charge of holding companies accountable that violate safety regulations, including in circumstances where these violations lead to death. But it is rare for managment or owners to be held personally responsible for any deaths.
Take this recent case from Columbus, Ohio. OSHA fined a cabinet maker $50,000 after finding 21 safety violations that were “discovered after the Jan. 13 death of employee Tom Hegg. Hegg died of acute exposure to wood dust after 15 years with the company.”
It’s often said you can’t put a price on a human life, but our regulatory agencies do exactly that.
Reiman lists numerous other ways the rich get away with killing Americans yet face a less severe response from the government. One is through botched medical operations, which a July 2000 Journal of the American Medical Association article estimated results in 225,000 deaths a year, making them the third largest cause of death in the United States, overall.
These deaths include 88,000 to 100,000 deaths from healthcare-associated infections and as many as 16,000 deaths from unnecessary surgical operations (which is slightly higher than those killed by homicides). Even discounting the baseline of human error, rather than being a grave cause of concern among the media and political class, the issue is regularly minimized as one of egregious lawsuits making the incomes of very-rich doctors unnecessarily low. Cries for “tort reform” were a feature of the Republican Party’s assault on Democratic health reform efforts.
These are just a few of the ways the rich and corporate America kill people in America. There are many others that deserve to be discussed, such as spreading deadly pollution, making unsafe consumer products, pricing out Americans from affordable health care, and other dire threats to our well-being.
But for the sake of space, let’s move on to monetary costs.
The image of the bank robber holding up a bank has been glamorized in many Hollywood films such as The Town, where Ben Affleck’s character works with other poor residents of South Boston trying to make enough money to escape their lives. But it’s worth pointing out that such street crime doesn’t actually cost Americans that much overall.
Reiman notes that the FBI’s 2007 estimate for the amount of wealth stolen in all property crimes topped out at $17.6 billion. That sounds like a lot, until you compare it to white-collar and financial crimes.
When you put together acts such as insurance fraud, telemarketing fraud, industrial espionage, credit card fraud, and other major financial crimes, you find that white collar-crimes cost the economy around $486 billion annually. That’s about 28 times as much as what common street crime costs us.
Sometimes these white-collar crimes cost us more than other times. The crime spree on Wall Street that led to the global Great Recession was estimated to have thrown 64 million additional people into extreme poverty — meaning they were forced to live on less than $1.25 a day — by the World Bank. There were many collateral effects from this Wall Street crime wave, so many it would be difficult to list them all.
Changing the Way We Respond
How did the government respond? The Great Recession was partly caused, after all, by massive fraud by financial institutions. But as actual crime grew more pervasive and destructive, the federal government’s prosecution of those crimes declined:
This raises a stark question: why do we punish crimes by the poor so severely and yet let the richest Americans off the hook? The crimes committed by the rich not only cause more monetary damage but kill far more people than ordinary street crime, yet the former are treated with kid gloves while the latter are treated with long prison sentences or even executions.
Our criminal justice system may be less about punishing the unjust than just another reflection of the power inequities we have in the United States.