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Understanding Class and Criminal Justice: The Divide of Class, Crime, and Punishment
Lower Class Injustice
Acknowledging there has been increased prosecution and punishment of white collar crime, Jeffrey Reiman, author of The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, emphasizes the rich are not caught, processed, prosecuted, and sentenced as severely or as often as the poor. The poor and indigent fall through the cracks. During the past twenty years, the gap has widened between the rich and the poor; therefore, “the rich get richer and the poor get prison.”
The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison (6th Ed., Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2001), provides striking contrasts in the American justice system based on social class. Reiman illustrates the injustices experienced by lower classes at each level of the criminal justice system: definitions of crimes, policing, arrest procedures, court proceedings and representation, and finally sentencing.
A leading source on the issues of class, crime and punishment
America's criminal justice system is "a carnival mirror."
Reiman compares the American criminal justice system to a mirror, “in which a whole society can see the darker outlines of its face…what is justice and what is evil.” His book is an invitation to step inside the mirror and view it from a “radically different angle” and claims the system does not seek to “eliminate crime or to achieve justice,” rather it reinforces the image that the “threat of crime” is a “threat from the poor.”
Many argue crime and justice are complicated issues to solve but Reiman accuses the experts of making four basic excuses for failing to reduce crime in America:
- “we’re too soft,”
- "crime is a “cost of modern life,”
- “blame it on kids,” and
- “we don’t know what to do."
Despite the reduction in crime rates, policymakers take credit for the lower rates as proof the system is working. Undoubtedly, as noted by Reiman, low unemployment rates, a routinization of the drug trade, and the decrease in the “population of young men in the crime prone years” make a significant impact on crime rates, more so than increased police patrols or stiffer prison sentences. Still, we are not safer than we were in 1960.
According to Reiman, “the criminal justice system is a carnival mirror that presents a distorted image of what threatens us”’ the distortions are everywhere. His accusations do not diminish the seriousness of violent crimes like rape, robbery, assault, and murder, which “no society should tolerate” but, he argues, the criminal justice system is a failure in making a significant reduction in crime while providing the middle class with images that criminal threats come from those lower on the economic ladder rather than from those who are above.
In an excellent example, he challenges the reader to consider why the term murder is not used for deaths caused by environmental law violations, failure to provide safe working conditions, poverty, or improper medical care.
The "Triple Failure"
- Failure to implement policies that reduce the incidence of crime,
- The reluctance to define dangerous acts of the rich as crimes, and
- The refusal to eliminate class bias.
The System is "Designed to Fail."
Reiman describes the phenomena as a “Pyrrhic Defeat Theory” comparing it to a “military victory…at such a cost in troops and treasure that it amounts to a defeat.” In effect, this theory establishes that the “war on crime is a failure and an avoidable one.” Indeed, there are “benefits to those in power that (the system) amounts to success."
Instead, the American criminal justice system barely makes a dent in the reduction of crime. Charged by Reiman as “designed to fail,” the system keeps the public preoccupied and in such fear of lower class crime that they virtually ignore the crimes of the rich and powerful.
Reiman provides evidence the criminal justice system works in two ways:
- “makes it more likely those who end up in jail or prison will be from the lower class for similar crimes (because) the poor are more likely to be arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced; and
- street crimes are treated more harshly than white collar crimes despite that the latter causes more death, injury, and loss of money to society."
The “triple failure of criminal justice” comes from failure to implement policies that reduce the incidence of crime, the reluctance to define dangerous acts of the rich as crimes, and the refusal to eliminate class bias.
Share your opinion
Is the American criminal justice system a "triple failure?"
Understanding the Ideology of Class and Crime
Understand this: the ideology of class and crime is not a new concept. Philosophers, sociologists, and criminologists have cried out against the discrimination and criminalization of the poor for centuries. The American criminal justice system is just the latest version.
Once Adolphe Quetelet’s 19th century European study found evidence poverty was related to criminality, the relationship of this sociological link became the basis for modern criminology. Not long after, Emile Durkheim determined that since crime existed in times of poverty and prosperity, crime must be normal. Simply put, people cannot all act exactly alike: therefore, it is impossible to eliminate crime. Crime may even create social solidarity as people bond against those who commit crime. Durkheim's theory of anomie may even explain American criminal justice: “rules of behavior have broken down or become inoperative during periods of rapid social change or social crisis” (Siegel 192).
From its inception, American society has been in a constant state of rapid social change with every passing generation. History might indicate American capitalism was to be achieved at all costs: slavery, a “Manifest Destiny,” and legalized racial discrimination. America's continued involvement in major wars, the industrial and the information technology revolutions, and even the so-called “sexual revolution” certainly affected the morality of American society.
Durkheim’s most important conclusion, albeit a frightening one, is that crime serves a purpose; indeed, it has benefits. If street and violent crime have a purpose, it is logical to conclude the crimes of the American criminal justice system have their own purpose and benefits as well. This lends credibility to Reiman’s theory. The most obvious benefit is employment. According to criminologist, William Chambliss, California had a decline of more than 8,000 employees in higher education but increased the Department of Corrections by more than 25,000. In 1965, 4.7 million crimes were reported; within a generation, the number of crimes quadrupled to 12.4 million by 1998. Criminal justice was a $112 billion government business by 1995 with 2 million employees. Therefore, efforts to reduce crime would prove contrary to this financial investment.
There is no lack of support for Reiman’s claim the system does not seek to eliminate crime or achieve justice but reinforces the idea that crime is a threat from the poor. According to Lawrence Travis, III, Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati:
"It’s easy to claim that racism exists in police departments, but it may be better defined as discriminating against poverty. Race is associated with poverty. African-Americans are disproportionately urban, more likely to be unemployed and undereducated, and more likely to lack social and financial resources (Mullen)."
Punishment in America
Consider the results of a 1991 study by Spohn and Cederbloom in Detroit:
“Given the high unemployment rate among blacks…judges might see black offenders as less employable than white offenders, and thus as more likely than whites to recidivate.”
The decision of the judge to incarcerate instead of a sentence of probation is strongly influenced by the offenders’ employment status. This supports the idea that imprisonment serves as a social control rather than a criminal control directly aimed at minorities and those of low socio-economic status (Welch 44). The evidence is overwhelming and undeniable. According to the Bureau of Justice, in 2002 there were:
3,347 sentenced black male prisoners per 100,000 black males;
1,176 sentenced Hispanic male prisoners per 100,000 Hispanic males; but
only 450 white male prisoners per 100,000 white males.
Michael Welch, author of Punishment in America, demonstrates “the critical analysis of jails not only raises more questions about basic fairness...but also sheds light on mechanisms of social control…called social sanitation.” According to Welch, jails serve as a “warehouse reserved mostly for the urban underclass.” Minorities and the lower class remain in jail after their arrests because they are too poor to meet their bail; meanwhile, white middle class are viewed as reputable and are often released on their own recognizance or can meet their bail.
Two-thirds of the pretrial detainees at Riker’s Island Jail, which has an overall population that is 95 percent black and Hispanic, had bail set as low as $250 to $500. These are detainees who have not yet been found guilty of any crimes.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 1998, half of jail inmates reported incomes of less than $600 per month; and 64 percent of all prisoners were reported as being regular drug users (Welch 41). Pretrial detention raises a very important issue: this type of punishment before trial violates the “innocent until proven guilty” principle and this punishment is often imposed on those who are not able to meet their bail.
Jerome G. Miller, co-founder of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives and author of Search and Destroy: African-American Male in the Criminal Justice System, likens the criminal justice system to a game of “bait and switch”; the bait was “violent crime.” Then in the 1980s, relatively few violent offenders could be found; therefore, labels and definitions of “dangerous” were expanded to include as many of the underclass as possible.
Miller shares incredible evidence from Duval County, Florida, according to the 1989-1994 Uniform Crime Report: very little jailing had to do with serious or violent crime since the top ten offenses were traffic (excluding drunk driving), shoplifting, driving under the influence, simple assault, drug sale or purchase, aggravated assault, disorderly intoxication, worthless checks, and burglary. In fact, these offenses accounted for over 75 percent of the total number of crimes in the county. The individual accounts of some of these African-American males are appalling: an 18-year old was sentenced to 45 days in jail for taking one cigarette out of a pack on a store shelf and smoking it, then returning the pack to the shelf; another 18-year old received a sentence of 60 days in jail for selling fake crack to vice police for $20; an attorney whose first offense was resisting arrest without violence, was given four months in jail (Victor 23-24). There is no other explanation; the American criminal justice system wants society to believe these are the kinds of people that should be feared – the ones that should be removed from our society.
During a conference at Ivy Tech State College on October 24, 2003, Paul Leighton, Associate Professor at Eastern Michigan University, the keynote speaker, compared two alleged crimes: one by a young man who had three “brushes with the law” and one by Ken Lay, former CEO of Enron:
"The young man used a fraudulent credit card and bought $80 worth of goods, wrote a $28 bad check; and then accepted $120 for a home improvement job that he didn’t complete. The man was given life in prison because of the “three strikes law”; in comparison, Lay took $17 million in cash advances from Enron, paid it back with Enron stock that he knew would be worthless, and then cashed out $103 million in Enron shares, all while encouraging the public to buy stock in Enron. When Enron filed bankruptcy, many Americans lost their retirement money and college savings accounts. But Lay walked away without an indictment (Mullen)."
Incarceration Rates by Race
"Sweeping" by Law Enforcement
A controversial law enforcement tactic known as sweeping is pursued with more enthusiasm when the subject is black. A case in point is the 1992 incident at the State University in New York at Oneonta. A college official illegally provided police with a roster of black students in order to assist in such a dragnet to find a suspect in the attack of a 77-year old white woman who said she had been attacked by a black male. The official was eventually demoted. Black civil rights leaders insisted there was a racial motivation for the incident and “correctly pointed out…comparable manhunts are rarely undertaken in white neighborhoods” (Welch 38). Clearly minorities and those from the lower classes experience major injustices at every level of the criminal justice system, from the time of arrest until sentencing, incarceration and parole.
In line with Reiman’s view of the “triple failure of criminal justice,” criminologists have long argued against the conservative perspective, which has dominated the system and made significant changes in the way the government allocates funding. As a result, not only is there a resistance to implement policies that reduce the incidence of crime, but those that existed through social service agencies and organizations shave been stripped of funding. Meanwhile, criminal justice programs and prisons have been fueled. Critical criminologists warn:
“Greater investment in criminal justice is consistent with a political economy devoted to increasing capital for the wealthy while subjecting the lower classes to coercive measures of social control” (Welch 15).
Failure to Address White-collar Crime + Ineffective Representation of the Poor
There is serious reluctance to define dangerous acts of the rich as crimes though they cause disease, injuries, and fatalities. Embezzlement, it seems will never be viewed as serious as robbery or larceny. In a classic study, Edwin Sutherland, after examining 70 large American corporations, found the authorities handled the large majority of corporate offenses informally or through civil law. The offenses included pollution, industrial accidents causing death and injury, unsafe consumer products, corporate fraud, and tax evasion. This contributes to the ascendancy of corporations over the law (Websdale 31).
Following the scandals of Enron, WorldCom, and Martha Stewart, there appears to be an outcry from the public to hold the rich accountable for their actions. In 2002, Congress passed the Corporate Fraud Accountability Act. Georgia Representative Mac Collins described the effort:
"To strengthen laws criminalizing document shredding and other forms of obstruction of justice and provides a maximum penalty of twenty years for such violations. This bill grants emergency authority to the U.S. Sentencing Commission to draft guidelines reflecting the serious nature of securities, pension, and accounting fraud. It closes loopholes by which corporate officers can use bankruptcy laws to discharge liabilities based on securities fraud and requires top corporate executives to certify that the financial statements of the company fairly and accurately represent the financial condition of the company. Violating this section can subject corporate executives to fines of up to $5 million and 20 years in prison.” (U.S. House of Representatives).
Holding the rich accountable for their harmful acts through the expansion of criminal statutes is only one piece of the puzzle. There are a myriad of problems throughout the criminal justice system. Providing effective legal representation to the lower classes and the indigent is a critical component that cannot continue to be ignored. According to the 1999 National Survey of Indigent Defense Systems, $1.2 billion was spent by indigent defense programs to handle 4.2 million felony cases in the 100 most populous counties. This comes to an average of $283 per case. This enormous case load was represented by approximately 44,900 attorneys in public defender programs, assigned counsel programs, or by contract, which would average some 95 cases per year for an individual attorney. Of the 36 million Americans that live below the poverty level in 1995, 44 percent reside in these 100 counties.
The State of Texas is made up of 254 counties. Today, only two of its largest counties, Lubbock and Brazoria, are fully complying with laws designed to make sure capital murder defendants get effective representation. After the state legislature passed The Fair Defense Act in 2001, the Texas Defender Service and the Equal Justice Center conducted a study focusing on 33 counties that account for 87 percent of the defendants sentenced to Death Row since 1976 and found criminal courts in 31 counties have “failed to live up to the law’s requirements for various reasons including low pay, low standards, inadequate training or no written standards for defense lawyers. The report charges:
“This failure is a serious dereliction of the counties’ duties under state law and continues to call into grave question the quality of justice and the reliability of verdicts produced in many Texas death penalty cases.”
Travis County was cited for a number of issues but there is absolutely no excuse for “not making sure lawyers in death penalty cases have enough legal training.” Even if all counties in Texas complied with the state law, they would “still fall short of national standards set by the American Bar Association,” according to Robin Maher, Director of the Death Penalty Representation Project (Pasztor).
It's not a conspiracy.
There is a temptation to link the ideology of class and crime with a conspiracy. Reiman cautions his arguments are not “a conspiracy theory,” rather they explain and demonstrate the patterns of behavior within the system and of those who benefit.
A conspiracy would be impossible to prove and would have to be kept secret; besides, most leaders seem to be sincere about doing the right thing for their citizens. But if all the research is available to them and still they do not implement policies that could reduce crime, refuse to define the harmful acts of the upper class as criminal behavior and ignore the economic discrimination against the poor, then what do we have? It may not be a secret but it is shameful and avoidable. It is this kind of “head in the sand” thinking that has created a demand for reformation of the entire justice system. The tasks are enormous because everything is linked but despite the seemingly desperate straits, it is not entirely impossible.
Reiman “outlines treatment strategies for helping the system go straight” that will protect society and promote justice:
- Put an end to the crime-producing poverty in our midst;
- Let the crime fit the harm and t he punishment fit the crime;
- Legalize the production and sale of drugs and treat addition as a medical problem;
- Create correctional programs that promote, not undermine, personal responsibility;
- Enact and vigorously enforce stringent gun controls;
- Narrow the range in which police officers, prosecutors and judges exercise discretion and develop procedures to hold them accountable to the public for the fairness and reasonableness of their decisions;
- Transform the equal right to counsel into the right of equal counsel;
- Establish a more just distribution of wealth and income.
There are some programs being developed and implemented that are promising and hopeful. In an effort to reduce crime-producing poverty, in 1995 the federal government invested $30 million in a new non-profit developer, The Community Preservation Development Corporation. This project aimed to restore Edgewood Terrace, a housing complex in Northeast Washington, D.C., which suffered from an open-air crack market. Tenants did not even have working showers. The investment was enough to gain another $40 million in private and public money, which renovated the housing complex and brought in job training programs, child care, and after school programs. Prior to the investments, the average income was $9,400; by 2005, the average income is $26,800 – nearly three times higher. According to Conrad Egan, the CEO of the National Housing Conference:
Crime rates, drug trafficking, and violence are way down at Edgewood Terrace…the complex, once considered housing of last resort, now attracts higher-income families as tenants…families earning $10,000 live next to (those) earning $70,000. This proves that a well-planned, mixed income development creates a stable environment…creates more job opportunities for lower-income families. This is a success story we should be replicating across the country…it is impossible for (our nation’s poor) to climb out of poverty on their own” (A Safety Net).
In 1997, the Bureau of Justice Assistance published the first evaluation of State and local programs in a series, “Improving the Nation’s Criminal Justice System: Findings and Results from State and Local Program Evaluations.” These strong assessment and evaluation programs make States and localities accountable for the grants they receive, determine “what works and what does not work,” and encourages “sound programming.” According to Director Nancy E. Gist, “Having been evaluated and identified as effective programs, they become models for other States and localities to replicate.”
California implemented its Continuity of Care Project (Donovan Prison Therapeutic Community Program in 1991 “following increasing evidence that substance abuse is a driving factor in both prison overcrowding and parole revocation.” The program focuses on three major areas: pre-parole transition planning, substance abuse treatment services, and parole supervision. After twelve months post-parole, they found only 16.7 percent of participants who completed treatment were returned to State prison custody as opposed to 42.9 percent of participants who dropped out. This is a significant success rate. Even two years after parole, only 27.6 percent were returned to State custody; the dropout group returned at a staggering rate of 61.5 percent (Bureau of Justice Assistance.).
The State of Georgia is currently in the process of creating a statewide legal defense system for the poor. Under the direction of the General Assembly, an 11-member Public Defender Standards Council was created in April 2003. The council is to develop guidelines and standards, which will be used in “the creation of a uniform indigent defense system for the states’ 49 judicial circuits.” Their mission, according to Judge Willie Lockette, is to “make sure indigents charged with crime receive effective representation of counsel.” Too many times effective defense counsel is equated with the financial resources to afford the best attorney. Establishing a standards council will bring more “consistency and fundamental fairness to the system.” Indigent defense reform is a pressing issue for courts particularly since overturned convictions due to “lack of adequate defense” are devastating to victims and their families. According to Billie Bolton, spokeswoman for the Georgia Administrative Office of the courts, this system will cost $70 million; but this is necessary to ‘ensure a fair trial for defendants” (Finn).
An overhaul of the criminal justice system is in line with Constitutional ideals.
In defense of the American criminal justice system, it has roots in English common law. It is a system that is hundreds of years old and was put into place when society was concerned with one-on-one crime. Furthermore, the total population of the United States in 1790 was under 4 million. Today, the population is nearly 100 fold greater. The advent of the industrial revolution and the information technology age changed society drastically; and, likewise, the face of crime has changed. Theft, once committed violently against another person directly, is easier perhaps on the conscious if it is done electronically or on paper; in that way, there is no face on the victim. Crimes that would have been ordinarily committed by individuals are more often committed by organizations and corporations.
Many aspects of the system are outdated. The American criminal justice has failed to reduce crime and has failed to protect society’s most vulnerable citizens, the poor. Therefore, in line with the Declaration of Independence, “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” Thus the criminal justice system will have to change in order to protect society, maintain order, and preserve justice.
Undoubtedly, this is a process that will take years to accomplish but it is worth every effort. An overhaul of the American criminal justice system is in line with a commitment to the ideals enshrined in our constitution, “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty…” With the highest crime rate of all industrialized nations and 36 million of its citizens living in poverty, America has a lot of explaining to do, not just to its citizens but to the world. Reiman says it best: “The experience of the 20th century has taught us that we should not take for granted that every legal system is a system of justice."
Criminologists, sociologists, academicians, government agencies along with whole communities and individual citizens are shining a bright light on the American criminal justice system. If America wants to retain its position as a global leader, it must set the example. The change is inevitable.
The Washington Post. "A Safety Net for the District's Poor." 2 Nov. 2003, B:08.
Finn, Michael. “State eyes indigent defense. Inconsistent legal service for the poor seen as a weakness.” Chattanooga Times. 6 Aug. 2003, sec. N:G1.
Mullen, Linda. “Prison, poverty, and race; Conference asks tough questions.” South Bend Tribune. 25 Oct. 2003, A1.
Siegel, Larry J. Criminology. 8th Ed. Belmont, CA. Thomson-Wadsworth, 2003.
Pasztor, David. “Death penalty law not being followed study finds. Only two Texas counties are following rules meant to make sure poor defendants have good lawyers.” Austin-American Statesman. 29 Oct. 2003, B1.
U.S. Department of Justice. Office of Justice Programs. Bureau of Justice Assistance. Improving the Nation’s Criminal Justice System: Findings and Results from State and Local Program Evaluations. Washington; GPO, Dec. 1997.
U.S. Department of Justice. Office of Justice Programs. Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin. “National Survey of Indigent Defense Systems, 1999.” Washington: GPO, Nov. 2000
U.S. Department of Justice. Office of Justice Programs. Bureau of Justice Statistics Home Page. “Prison Statistics Summary Findings.” 12 Dec. 2002. 22 Nov. 2003.
U.S. House of Representatives 108th Congress, 1st Session Web Site. 9 Nov. 2003.
Victor, Joseph. Criminal Justice 99/00. 23 ed. “African American Males in the Criminal justice System.” Guilford, CT: Dushkin/McGraw-Hill, 1999.
Websdale, Neil. Policing the Poor: From Slave Plantation to Public Housing. Binghampton, NY: Northeastern University Press, 2001.
Welch, Michael. Punishment in America: Social Control and the Ironies of Imprisonment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 1999.
By Liza Lugo, J.D.
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