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.