criminal justice, human rights, social change

The rich get richer, the poor get prison…

I recently finished reading an amazing book, The Rich Get Richer and The Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice (9th Edition). The book itself has too many statistics and can be quite dry at times, but the strong message that resounds through its pages is truly powerful. It is a damning account of the utter failures of the U.S.’s criminal justice system to properly and fairly punish and prevent crime. The book essentially argues that the criminal justice system does not simply punish the dangerous, but ONLY the dangerous and poor. By punishing the poor disproportionately, the criminal justice system perpetuates poverty and fails to solve the underlying social structures that led to this class divide in the first place. Here’s an excellent quote:

“…the criminal justice system focuses moral condemnation on individuals and deflects it away from the social order that may have either violated the individual’s rights or dignity or literally pushed him or her to the brink of the crime. This not only serves to carry the message that our social institutions are not in need of fundamental questioning, it further suggests that the justice of our institutions is obvious, not to be doubted….Not only does the criminal justice system acquit the social order of any charge of injustice; it specifically cloaks the society’s own crime-producing tendencies….by blaming the individual for a crime, the society is acquitted of the charge of complicity in that crime.”

Even worse, by punishing primarily the dangerous and poor, we ignore the crimes of the rich. White collar criminals who steal millions of dollars are routinely let go after very short prison terms of a few months or a few years at most, while the poor are put away for years at a time for nonviolent drug offenses and property crimes. Look at this data:

  • The average prison term for savings and loan offenders 1988-1992 was 36 months; the average sentence for burglary is 56 months, and 38 months for motor vehicle theft
  • The average loss in an savings and loan case is $500,000. The average loss per property offense (in 1995) was $1,251!
  • In 2000, the total cost of white collar crime was $404 BILLION. The total amount stolen in all property crimes reported in 2000? $16 billion. Yet, corporate executives rarely end up in jail.

By failing to punish all criminals equally, we are failing to protect OURSELVES from the crimes of the rich. Our system does not work for either the poor or for the rich. This is reason enough to want to change it.

Finally, by punishing the poor, we are perpetuating the myth of “dangerousness” of the poor. By convicting the poor at a greater rate, we are not only plunging them into further poverty, but we are also making pushing forth prejudices and stereotypes. We stereotype the typical criminal as black and poor, and so we begin thinking of those who fit this description as criminal. We start suspecting that the poor are also dangerous. By doing so, we start thinking of the poor, the destitute, the homeless as not worth our time, and as something less than human. This type of prejudice and racism is unacceptable in the U.S., or indeed, any society.

The criminal justice system has the effect of dehumanizing the poor and separating them from society, as if they were different from the rest of us. They are not different – we, the rich and privileged, commit many crimes, but are simply protected by the unjust system we live in. The poor are the ones who are disproportionately caught up in the system because they lack the protection we have: competent legal counsel, and the sympathy of the general public. But they are not more dangerous, they are not more culpable. We fail to recognize their common humanity when we take on the views that the criminal justice system propounds. After all:

“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

And so, due to our personal assumptions of the “dangerousness” of the poor, we ourselves are deeply complicit in the failure of the criminal justice system to act fairly. By ignoring the problem, we partake in it. The first step is for us to confront our own inner prejudices; only then will change become a possibility.

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8 thoughts on “The rich get richer, the poor get prison…”

  1. Nathalie says:

    Thanks for sharing your readings! It seems like an interesting book. From the brief exposure I had of the judicial system when doing pro bono work, I felt that the criminal justice system was at best perpetuating a situation, or more likely aggravating it (pushing down people to further poverty and criminality) and did not provide any solution to the root causes of criminality which are related to economic, social issues and sometimes mental health.
    The problem in rethinking a new way to deal with crimes involves people to get out of the repression side of it. The fact that people go before a court and in prison seems like a response (redress of some sort) to what people suffered from (theft, agression, etc), while a social, educational response feels like a granting something good to someone who did something bad. This short sighted analysis is a plight in our society, not only for criminal justice.

  2. Akhila says:

    I totally agree — the criminal justice system is just the punishment when things have already gone wrong. Education, health services, good foster care and other services provided by the state are vital to ensuring that individuals do not end up in poor backgrounds and are able to pull themselves out of a situation of poverty without turning to crime. However the reality is that these systems are not functioning either, leading to the criminal justice system as a last resort.

    As someone who wants to be a lawyer, I find myself thinking that the justice system itself can be converted to be more rehabilitative and restorative rather than simply punitive. The system as it is creates more criminals rather than solving the problem of crime. I fervently believe that we can reform the system to ensure that people are provided with the services they need.

  3. Nathalie says:

    True, that's why I think the field of criminal justice is so frustrating; thanks God there are out there passionate attorneys trying to fight the system, but in the end of the day, the change probably has to come from the political side. Then, the key would be non-profits lobbying for change and popular support to new ideas. What do you think?

  4. Akhila says:

    I agree — it's a very difficult field to be in. Yet, I don't think it's worth shrugging off and saying “oh, by the time someone gets caught up in the system, it's too late to do anything about it.” I still think we can do something about it — it just becomes harder and harder as they get more hardened by the system. Yet there's a role of rehabilitation that the system SHOULD be playing, which it is not currently.

    Certainly, I think broader political reform of the system is needed… we need non-profits and organizations to lobby for broader system-wide policy change for more rehabilitative options. I think that's definitely a good way to go!

  5. Crystal Hudson says:

    I think a case could be made, by a smart lawyer, that someone who has served their entire sentence, isn’t on parole and isn’t being currently accused of a crime, should be permitted to enter the workforce in whatever capacity an employer wishes to hire such a person; that to do deny them the opportunity to enter the workforce is a violation of the fifth and eighth amendments. This is excessive punishment and cruel.
    On the other hand, I do recognize the employers’ rights to be aware of any criminal conviction and to decide for their own purposes whether such criminal conviction constitutes a good reason not to hire.
    One is a question of personal judgment, for the sake of good business, the other is official, continued punishment that amounts to state sanctioned official oppression.
    With the collateral consequences of today’s World Wide Web, is permanent public access excessive; when virtually all have access and the right to discriminate indefinitely?

  6. Crystal Hudson says:

    By the way- WAY TO GO! Love, love, love that you are pursuing this incredibly admirable direction. And a Harvard Graduate?! You are AMAZING young lady. Keep that inner fire burning; despite the cold bitter winds. They will temp you to falter- to quit. I am 50 and still fight for what is right. I am poor; and have been all my life. I was a talented young person with dysfunctional parents and little direction. But it does not define me today. I have the heart of a lion; and never back down.

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