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Class Disparities

America is a class-conscious society. It has been basically divided into three distinct socioeconomic classes, which not only provides social status but also identifi es prestige status. Power relationships are closely related to socioeconomic classes (Vanneman & Cannon, 1987). Because we are a capitalist society, this economic foundation helps to confi rm and maintain powerbrokers at various levels. It is no longer restricted to the owners of the companies because the power relationships have taken on new meanings, noting that the confl icts that were originally confi ned or existed between the own- ers and the workers have been recreated. There now exists a hierarchy that has confl icts between the company and workers as well as between the workers within their respective classes and the classes below them. Today, with the reassignment of power relationships, even the lowest worker along the socioeconomic (SES) scale has status and power over the nonemployed. This hierarchy serves to cre- ate and recreate social statuses as one’s position in society changes (Vanneman & Cannon, 1987). Our social structure is impacted both socially and politically by the economic status of our citizens.

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The laws in society are structured (1) to represent shared views of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors and (2) to ensure that the interests of those with power are maintained. Because norms and values are different based upon the various conditions that affect one’s life, those norms may be in con- fl ict with the established set of norms upon which the laws are based. Since laws normally refl ect the values of the middle and upper classes, it stands to reason that those of the lower classes will be identifi ed more often as criminal than their middle and upper class counterparts (Chambliss & Seidman, 1971). The legal system is comprised of many agencies that carry out various processes, and at every level there is a discretionary decision as to whether or not to fully employ the duties of the agency. This discre- tionary decision determines the future contact a citizen may have with the legal system based upon the perceived rewards for the agency and its personnel. In most situations, enforcement is geared toward those persons without political power and who are of the lower socioeconomic class.

The differential treatment of the poor in America has been a part of our society for an extended period. The question is, why has it persisted? One could argue that those in the criminal justice sys- tem continue to perpetuate the belief that crime is the work of the poor. Crimes committed by the middle and upper classes are not viewed the same as those of the poor. Society refuses to admit that it is partially responsible for the lack of opportunities afforded its poor, knowing that the poor still have the same aspirations as others in society (Reiman & Leighton, 2012). Unfortunately, the imposition of capital punishment is also impacted and administered based on economics. Due to the high costs associated with prosecuting a capital case, prosecutors must not only weigh the monetary costs but also the personal and political consequences that may occur as a result of prosecuting a capital case. An indigent offender is far easier to target for prosecution than someone with the resources to aggres- sively prepare a proper defense in a capital case, unlike the indigent offender, who would be assigned a public defender with limited resources with which to prepare a case.

Additionally, the SES of the victim also plays a role in the decision to prosecute. Individuals viewed as productive and valuable citizens with strong ties to the community tend to be revered, unlike those who are view as “needy” and looking for handouts (Phillips, 2009). This may be due to the pressures on the prosecutor from the community based upon the individual’s level of activity within the com- munity. Regardless of the socioeconomic status of the offender or victim, the administration of capital punishment should not rest on this factor (class). For too long, the rich get richer and the poor get prison (Reiman & Leighton, 2012), which has been substantiated by the research. It is time offenders



Etta F. Morgan


are held accountable for their crimes and tried and sentenced in a fair and equitable manner that can withstand the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments tests. Class is not the only factor that infl uences the administration of justice and, more specifi cally, capital punishment. We fi nd that society also uses the sex of an offender as a factor to be considered in administering capital punishment.

Sex and the Death Penalty

Chivalry, Patriarchy, Women, and the Law

Historically, chivalry was most often associated with knights and men and their conduct within soci- ety. This conduct included gallantry, honor, and violence. Since violence was expected as a means of settling disputes, wives of knights were often abused according to today’s societal standards. Women during this period were considered property of their men, as well as property that could be won through fi ghting. Knights earned honor through violence whether in war or defending the honor of a ‘lady.’ Defending the honor of a lady only applied to those women who were considered ‘ladies’ who adhered to the rules of womanhood and femininity. The idea of chivalry suggested that women were weak and needed men to take care of them (Carroll, 1997). While chivalry appeared to protect women, it also reinforced gender roles and a class system, because all women were not afforded the same protection of honor as those of the knightly class. Although knights killed many people in order to gain honor, they did not kill women because it was not honorable and it would show a lack of gallantry (Shatz & Shatz, 2012). Chivalry has been imbedded in American society for many years. The ideas of chivalry have even infl uenced several Supreme Court decisions. For example, in Bradwell v. Illinois (1872), the court noted that women should not practice law. Then in 1908 the court ruled in Muller that women could only work a prescribed number of hours in the workplace. The court’s opinion in Hoyt v. Florida (1961) strongly stated that women should not maintain a presence outside of the home in the public sphere. Rulings such as these only served to reinforce the ideology of a woman’s place is in the home.

While some societies have moved away from notions of chivalry, it remains a fi rm ideology in true Southern cultures. One ongoing Southern tradition and perhaps one of the most prevalent remind- ers of chivalrous attitudes toward women is the debutante ball. The essence of this ball tells society that the young girl is of impeccable character, possesses all the virtues of a lady, and knows her place in society. Therefore, she is to be honored and her reputation is to be defended at all times. The ele- ments of chivalry are imbedded in patriarchy. The major difference in the two is the keeper of honor. In patriarchy it shifts the burden of maintaining honor from the knight, as in medieval times, to the father as ruler/head of the home, the husband, brother, or other male in the family.

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