The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison Essay

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Jeffrey Reiman’s classic text, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, originally published in 1979, provides a critical examination of the operations and failures of the American criminal justice system and its policies. In its 10th edition, coauthored by Paul Leighton and published in 2010, this book continues  to illustrate  for readers its premise that the entire criminal justice system— from the writing of the laws to the punishment of those found guilty of breaking these laws— functions to protect (or ignore) the actions of the wealthy upper class and to highlight and severely punish the actions of the poor and lower class.

Main Premise

In order to set the stage for their core premise, Reiman and Leighton first present their view on the primary goal of the criminal justice system: to portray to the public through various media outlets that there is a very real and substantial threat of serious crime and becoming a victim of a serious crime in the United States and that the threat essentially comes from the poor. They argue further that criminal justice policies, created by those with political and economic power, fail to reduce crime because they are not meant to do so—they are formulated instead, again, by those in power to maintain the public portrayal of serious crime as the work of the lower class and keep the public’s attention, especially that of the middle class, on the serious criminal threat that appears to come from the poor. In this way, official, casual, and media attention or scrutiny is drawn away from the dangerous, destructive, and/or criminal actions of the upper class (e.g., corporate crime and violence, disregard of administrative, safety, and environmental regulations and civil and criminal laws).

To be sure, the authors acknowledge that they do not believe that the upper class has intentionally made the system fail in order to reap any particular benefits. Rather, they argue that the failing criminal justice system has developed bit by bit over time, and likely with mostly positive intentions in mind. Despite this, Reiman and Leighton argue that the system has become a failure at reducing high crime rates and a success at (1) portraying to the public through the media that serious crime is the labor of the poor, and (2) neglecting and shielding the actions of the upper class, which are just as, if not more, dangerous than those of the poor—most typically by not criminalizing the actions and behaviors of the upper class.

Reiman and Leighton frame their critical view of crime and the criminal justice system through use of the Pyrrhic defeat theory. They present a Pyrrhic victory as a kind of military success that comes at such a high cost to both life and property that, essentially, it is a defeat. They then apply this concept to the workings of the contemporary U.S. criminal justice system, arguing that the failures of the criminal justice system and its policies (e.g., to reduce or eliminate crime and resultant harm) are actually interpreted as victories or successes by and for those in power who benefit from the existence, and portrayal, of crime as an occupation of the poor. They also note, importantly, that crime control policies must not only fail, but also continue to consistently reinforce the belief that serious crime is committed by the poor.

The authors pose several hypotheses depicting exactly how the avoidable failures throughout the criminal justice system result in benefits for the wealthy (i.e., by consistently reinforcing the view that serious criminal threats are posed by those on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder), thus maintaining the status quo. These hypotheses are presented as the specific ways in which the entire criminal justice system—the legislators, police, prosecutors, judges, juries, and parole boards—defines, investigates, charges, arrests, convicts, and sentences the actions of the poor much more severely, if at all, than it does the similar actions of the wealthy.

Supporting Evidence

Throughout their text, Reiman and Leighton provide vast support for their view of criminal justice goals and policies as designed to fail and maintain a certain, visible level of lower-class crime by presenting numerous examples of corporate crime with devastating financial, physical, and environmental consequences that have resulted in minimal, if any, criminal punishment. At the same time, they highlight the wide-reaching and harsh punishments (e.g., long prison sentences, capital punishment) imposed on lower-class individuals convicted of a variety of behaviors—that have comparatively fewer negative consequences— which have been defined as crime by those with economic and political power.

Reiman and Leighton provide numerous examples of this dichotomy of punishment: no or little sanctions for the dangerous behaviors of corporations and big businesses and extremely harsh sanctions for mainly poor individuals convicted of street crimes (i.e., those behaviors that do not take place in or are engaged in by big businesses, corporations, or Wall Street). More specifically, they  provide  detailed  contemporary examinations of the actions of the upper class (i.e., white-collar crime) that have resulted in massive physical and financial losses, many of which are still not defined and/or punished as crimes, including workplace diseases, harm, and fatalities; health care and medical misconduct and injuries; environmental harm, pollution, and waste management; insurance and credit card fraud; embezzlement; and securities thefts and frauds.

Finally, the authors provide numerous recommendations for rehabilitating the criminal justice system so that it may ultimately protect society and promote justice, including alleviating poverty and the disparate ways in which the poor are treated during each stage of the system, revising criminal  codes and punishment statutes,  treating drug addiction as a medical problem, implementing correctional programs that emphasize accountability and provide preparation for successful community re-entry, and enacting and enforcing stricter gun control measures.


  1. Barak, Gregg, Paul Leighton, and Jeanne Flavin. Class, Race, Gender, and Crime: The Social Realities of Justice in America 3rd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010.
  2. Gordon, David M. “Capitalism, Class, and Crime In America.” Crime and Delinquency, v.19 (1973).
  3. Reiman, Jeffrey and Paul Leighton. The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice, 10th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2013.

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