Some discussion here on the differing meanings of the words "Working class", "Chav" and "Criminal underclass".
As might be expected, it's not enlightening stuff - one part debate to twenty parts class-baiting. Suffice to say, it's an epic human and political catastrophe that it's necessary to point out that working class people aren't chavs and those we do call "Chavs" aren't a criminal underclass. There are easily-identifiable reasons why these elisions exist, and almost all of them hail from the "toxic horseshit" school of prejudices stemming largely from media headlines and political arguments.
That's a discussion for another day, one when I'm in a worse mood than I am now. The point I want to pick up is the part about this "Criminal underclass" - what it is, who it is, what it does.
I'll ruin the surprise right now by telling you that there is indeed a criminal underclass in Britain, by which I mean "People who either make a living through criminality or are merely serially incarcerated". It makes up a tiny percentage of the populace - if I was to make a maximal guess then, in a city the size of Edinburgh, I'd say that we're talking around one to two thousand people from a population of around 500,000 - but it makes a big noise nonetheless.
It should be obvious that these people are drawn from the rock-bottom end of the economic scale, and that they tend to be the offspring of habitual criminals themselves 1. Even so, I encounter a stunning level of ignorance about who, exactly, fills out our prisons. It's a major mistake to identify a single class of criminals with an equal propensity to violence and mayhem, since their behaviours and characteristics are many and varied.
It should go without saying that most career criminals tend to come from very deprived backgrounds; are poorly educated and often inarticulate. I forget the exact figure, but a depressingly large number of criminals also suffer from mental disorders, ranging in severity from mild to very serious indeed. What follows is a runthrough of the major personality types you'll find in prisons the length and breadth of the land - do bear in mind while reading that this is all anecdata from my own personal experience, so don't go expecting rigorous sourcing and citation.
First up, by far the largest group of habitual criminals are Sad Sacks - generally shoplifters and petty thieves, incompetent burglars, drug offenders and so on. Stereotypically, the Sad Sack is the guy caught wedged fast in the window of his local shop with his pockets full of fags, surrounded by broken bottles of vodka, when the owner arrives for work.
Sad Sacks almost always have serious problems with drugs or alcohol and their criminal activities are almost always motivated by the need to fuel those habits, habits which make them utterly unemployable. They are, by and large, a nuisance to the public rather than a serious threat, although as always there are exceptions. Sad Sacks are usually only a serious problem up until their mid-thirties, when they tend to calm down and either clean up a little or settle into NHS drug and alcohol treatment programmes.
If I had to guess, I'd say that Sad Sacks make up at least 50% of the population men's prisons and up to 80% of women's jails. Women's jails in particular are stuffed with those whose dependency problems are the main reason for their offending.
It should also be remembered that Sad Sacks also represent a massive chunk of the victims of crime, given that they tend to socialise with nastier criminals than themselves. Sad Sacks can be very intimidating indeed to law-abiding members of the public, but they're small fish in a big pond. When push comes to shove with the assorted radges and nutters in their social circle, it's usually the Sad Sack's arse that ends up in the mud.
The second-largest group is Wee Pricks - rowdy teenagers prone to impulsive acts of violence, sometimes of the blood-curdling variety. Although their victims tend to be other Wee Pricks or Sad Sacks, the WPs are the ones most commonly cited by the public in crime surveys, because they're loud, intimidating, highly visible and occasionally armed. Wee Pricks don't last long on the streets and are usually either incarcerated or incapacitated before they reach 20 years old. WPs usually end up in young offenders institutions, where they traditionally graduate to the level of Bams or Radges (see below) or slowly turn into Sad Sacks.
Both Sad Sacks and Wee Pricks are impulsive criminals, stealing or fighting as the opportunity arises with little thought for the consequences, not because they're brazen rebels, but because they are either too desperate for drugs/alcohol, or are just too damn stupid, to care.
A far smaller but much scarier group are Bams and Radges. Bams and Radges share the same characteristics in that they're both violently-inclined and highly irrational, and both are constantly on the lookout for victims to exploit and injure. Both are likely to drink very heavily, but the chief difference between the two is that Bams are usually more of a threat to their friends, family members and other criminals, whereas Radges will smash fuck out of more or less any innocent punter unfortunate enough to incur their wrath.
Radges are also less likely to stop smashing fuck out of people once they've started, so as might be expected, there's a significant overlap with the next class of criminal, the Evil Bastard.
Evil Bastards are the ones that attract serious media attention and, although their numbers are comfortingly small, they are - paradoxically - still alarmingly numerous. Such people are, as the name implies, irredeemable shits, constantly scheming for ways to rob, injure or take advantage of anyone and everyone they encounter. Unlike other criminals, Evil Bastards do what they do for personal gain and because they greatly enjoy harming their fellow citizens. They make up a large proportion of the nation's career criminals, since they have the basic savvy to commit burglaries and assaults without getting caught.
Evil Bastards are the ones who will try to steal your last fiver and get violent and indignant if you catch them at it. Most of the really bloodcurdling crimes - men who batter their mothers for a tenner, that kind of thing - are committed by people in this group and unlike most other criminals, there's little prospect of reforming them even in their later years.
Unsurprisingly, Evil Bastards also make up a substantial proportion of the country's Rapists and Perverts. While most Perverts tend to be sad, lonely little men or sad, nasty family men, plenty of them are extremely sinister, calculating, vicious and spiteful little men for whom lifelong incarceration is probably the safest answer.
The final major group are the Criminally Insane, and you'll be familiar with them from your TVs. Whether they are literally insane is a moot point, and probably irrelevant, but we're talking William Beggs, Fred and Rose West, Peter Tobin and Peter Sutcliffe here. Despite their high profile, these criminals are incredibly rare.
So there - your criminal underclass, neatly categorised. I've done some violence to the statistics here - there are lots of white collar criminals and unlucky chumps who commit serious offences in hot blood too - but this'll do as a starting point for any discussion that ensues.
1. Rather than append "Although not always" to every sentence, just assume that I'm also saying "Although not always" at the end of every definite claim in this post.