There is no denying that justice systems across the globe are classist, with the majority of the UK prison population being white working-class men between the ages of 16 – 24. Stop and searches as well as arrests are predominantly made within lower socioeconomic areas against those from seemingly underprivileged backgrounds. These groups are targeted based purely on their background and are deemed by police as more criminally active; presumed to be guilty.
One of the key areas in which we can see classism is in the dispute over benefit versus tax fraud. Benefit fraud costs the country an average of £1.6 billion whilst tax fraud costs significantly more at around £14 billion per year (CAS, 2013). Yet benefit fraud is heavily monitored by policing agencies and seen by the public as more offensive, although it costs the country much less than its sister crime from an elite background.
Actions that advantage the powerful are often downplayed as crimes or not criminalised at all, with both lawmakers and the media using crime as a concept to distract the public from focusing on more serious harms and injustices that are taking place (Quinney, 1970; Hann, 1990).
Although law is subjective and changes according to social attitudes, Muncie et al. (2010) noted that by crimes both historically and currently focusing on certain behaviours such as theft and domestic abuse, criminal law tends to concentrate on identifying individual offenders as opposed to offences committed by state or corporate organisations. The justice system begins as a classist organisation due to the laws which we abide by being made by those with money and power (judges and politicians are disproportionately wealthy (Box, 1983); the system is built to work against rather than with the majority of the world, who struggle to survive day to day.
The United States cash bail system is a brilliant case study as to how the US is inherently classist and aims to keep those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds within the system in an unending cycle of poverty. The initial arrest of those from lower income backgrounds is just the beginning of the classism portrayed by the CJ system, this is a much deeper issue which can be seen in the bail scheme used within the United States.
Almost half of the households in the United States do not have $400 to use in the case of an emergency which is an important aspect to consider in reference to bail of suspects (Federal Reserve, 2017). The idea of bail is that once an individual is arrested (they have yet to be sentenced or proven guilty of any crime), their ability to return home is based entirely on money.
The justification given for the use of bail money within the criminal justice system is that it provides a guarantee that a defendant will return for trial or a hearing. It is those from poorer backgrounds that cannot come up with the bail money required and so are often left sitting in jail for months or even years awaiting trial. It is important to note that these individuals are technically not “criminals” due to the lack of sentencing and they have yet to be found guilty.
The average bail bond is around $10,000, pennies for those from high income backgrounds, but this is equivalent of 8 months income for the typical detainee (Amistad Bail Bonds, 2020). Another important aspect of the bail system is the privatisation of bail bond companies which is often used by lower income defendants in order to get themselves out of the system but with high interest fees, placing the individual in a further financially difficult situation.
A key case of this is 16-year-old Kalief Browder who’s bail was set at $3000 which his family could not pay. Kalief was in jail for 3 years awaiting trial, legally innocent of the crime he was accused of – although he was released after prosecutors dropped the charges against him, the psychological damage caused by his experience in jail meant that he went on to commit suicide just a year prior to his release. Injustices such as Kalief Browder’s are not uncommon both in the US but also worldwide. Although we work on an “innocent until proven guilty” process, arguably it is quite the opposite. By focusing on those from low income and underprivileged backgrounds, the criminal justice system largely ignores crimes of the powerful creating a cycle of perceived innocence and the ability to consistently avoid punishment for actions that they commit.
In a system that is supposedly based on presumed innocence it is both morally and socially unjust to allow finances to become an aspect in both the detection and imprisonment of individuals across the globe.