By Dr Jon Kofas, Countercurrents
Thursday, Aug 20, 2015
|Crime in America as an academic topic would require volumes to explain because it has to do as much with the political economy, social structure, race and ethnic relations, and culture of violence embedded in gun ownership that conservatives and the gun lobby support. Crime is the violation of social norms legalized by government that legislates on the basis of established social interests. The broader concept of justice is associated with protection under a legal system that guarantees due process in a modern pluralistic society. Where the US falls into this category as an open society, it is a country with capital punishment that many advanced countries have abolished, and a country with very high crime and prison rates that impact primarily minority communities.
While the US is a leader in political correctness when it comes to dealing with government and business, the same standard does not hold true when it comes to the domain of crime. The media, politicians, and analysts liberally use class, ethnocentric and racist assumptions to stigmatize not just people committing crimes but entire social groups. The same stereotypes and stigmas are not used when wealthy white people commit crimes regardless of their nature. Therefore, the criminal justice system is a reflection of society at large and it reveals a great deal of the level of social justice.
The origins of the modern criminal justice system rooted in a rational, some would argue scientific mode is 18th century Europe. With Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments (1764), Christian-based assumptions about criminal behavior and the criminal justice system began to change largely because of the advent of economic expansion and the First Industrial Revolution in England. Industrialization created large urban centers with working class and poor populations unable to sustain themselves and yielding to petty crimes as a way of survival. This is something that social scientist Henry Mayhew described in London Labour and London Poor in the 1840s amid controversies about the manner that the state dealt with the poor that became criminals.
Before the Enlightenment of which Beccaria was a part, crime was a sin and a reflection that the criminal was on the side of the devil instead of God. The good-evil Christian dichotomy was the basis on which crime was judged, including crimes of witches, Jews, gypsies, and even animals in many cases. Demonizing crime meant harsh punishment for sinners and unbelievers that defied the Christian Church and political establishment. Discounting for the mentally unstable, Beccaria argued that society, not the devil, creates criminals who defy the social contract because it marginalizes them. In other words, Becacaria applied the views of philosopher John Locke that human beings are products of their environment to the domain of crime and punishment. The conclusion was the denial of innate criminal traits and affirmation that society shapes human behavior.
The goal of the criminal justice system is to impose modes of conduct by legislators crafting laws and benefiting from the dominant social class against those that have no stake in the social contract because it is rooted in social injustice. The dominant social class has always used the legal system to maintain and preserve its privileged role against the majority outside the realm of privilege. Whether in the era of Beccaria or today, the lower social classes are associated with crime because the institutional structure marginalizes them and they have no stake in something that precludes them from participating in a social contract equitably. This is the case with minority groups and the poor today as much in the US as any other country around the world. Nevertheless, the media chooses to represent crime on the basis of innate character flaws not only of individuals but of social class, race and ethnicity. This is closer to the pre-Enlightenment dogmatic good-evil dichotomy than to the Beccaria model of crime and punishment. The manner that the media and politicians present crime has political goals because the issue is then used to keep society distracted from the injustices of the social contract designed to maintain a privileged order, namely the top tiered socioeconomic groups that the law and political system protects.
Media “race baiting” is as old as the Civil Right movement on the part of racists who insist they are merely speaking the truth in order to inform. To distract the focus of the public from the underlying causes of poverty and institutional racism that causes crimes in minority communities, the media looks superficially at the symptoms of criminal activities of individuals to discredit the entire minority population. When a white male guns down black people in a South Carolina church, it is the act of a lone gunman, a mentally unstable person who does not represent the majority population despite the nature of the hate crime. Although the crime was committed for blatant racist reasons that a segment of whites share political correctness and legal/societal conformity prevents them from expressing their views directly. Instead of analyzing this issue, the race-baiting rightwing media refuses to address the larger institutional problem that gives rise to such crimes.
When black youths are gunned down in cold blood by white cops, the media and analysts immediately rush to defend the murderers instead of the victim. This is done in the name of law and order implying that blacks are presumed guilty with tendencies toward violence, defiance of police authority and civil disobedience. Moreover, the race-baiting media focuses on black-on-black crime, on black-on-Hispanic and black-on-Asian crime. For example, the San Francisco media focuses on black-on-Asian crime, but rarely covers white collar crime or does so with the same criteria as blue-collar crime, especially when it pertains to minority-on-minority crime. This is also reflected in the black-white conviction disparity that is 10 to 1, although the black population in the city accounts for only 6% of the total.
Race-baiting has also targeted Obama who is black has not done anything about crime in minority communities, while the core issue of cultural and institutional racism with long and deep historical roots is never raised. Race baiting serves the political agenda of the institutional structure in deflecting focus from the racist culture and class struggle of which blacks are an integral part and suffering discrimination at all levels. This is a way of placing race issues at the center so that class issues are subordinated and people do not question the political economy and social structure. Dividing people in this manner is exactly what the European racist colonial masters did in Africa and it continues today in America at more subtle levels.
Crime becomes complex because arrests of blacks and Hispanics is at much higher level as the police have a presumption of guilt for minority groups that is not applicable to whites and especially to people based on higher social status. For specific areas of offences such as minor drug use for example, the statistics for black and white users about equal, but arrests and imprisonment of whites is tiny in comparison to blacks. Many critics, including European governments, have argued that imprisoning minorities in the US is a political decision. Nevertheless, the media projects the image the minority male is the criminal and the white majority the victim in a society where crime has become a ubiquitous phenomenon in every sector from books, newspapers, magazines, TV and motion pictures. In fact, local and national news programs routinely cover petty crime whereas they never cover the absence of social justice driving people to criminal conduct. This is in part because the US is hardly a democratic society but a quasi-authoritarian one ruled by the powerful influence of the wealthy, as Jimmy Carter recently pointed out.
At the very core of the enormous resources that the US and media spend on the crime issue is the goal of perpetuating the quasi-police state that converges with the war on terror. At the same time, it is a distraction from the underlying causes of crime that are socioeconomic, political, and cultural. The media promotes racism not only by what it chooses to cover selectively when it comes to crime, but the manner it presents white collar crime impacting the entire society vs. petty neighborhood crime impacting individuals and households as victims. The images of a cop arresting a black or Latino youth stealing, dealing drugs, running from the police is very dramatic and part of the culture of fear the media tries to inculcate into the public that crime is associated with minorities.
The media always differentiates between the white collar criminal defrauding investors and the government of hundreds of billions of dollar, and the petty thief stealing $100 from a 7-Eleven or breaking into a home to steal jewelry and cash. The white collar criminal banker involved in schemes to launder billions of dollars in drug money is excused as an isolated “bad apple” in the otherwise perfect system to which there is no alternative. The white collar criminal whose impact on the economy is immense may do a few years in a minimum security prison in a worst case scenario, and then come out to write a book about it and go on the lecture tour after becoming a consultant.
People shrug their shoulders when there are reports of money laundering, insider trading, monopolistic practices, manipulation of interest rates, etc. but they go ballistic when a Hispanic or black unemployed youth is caught breaking into a house stealing jewelry. This is not at all to trivialize any kind of crime or to excuse it. However, the media instills shock value and fear in the public mind about crime by minority youth. Meanwhile, the corrupt and illegal practices of the white corporate CEO are covered as part of “business news”. The minority or poor white youth stealing a hundred dollars from the 7-Eleven will do jail time, and if it is a second offense and a gun was used a long prison term awaits. This individual will become hardened inside the prison and then unable to find a place in mainstream society after his release.
The media, government and the justice system send a signal to society that crime pays very well when it is within the institutional framework involving Wall Street, banks and corporations defrauding consumers, investors and the government. According to the FBI, while blue-collar crime costs run about $15 billion annually, white-collar crime costs run at $300-600 billion. The figures are much higher according to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service. “ Costs (white-collar crime) are estimated for employee theft, cargo theft, health care fraud, consumer and personal fraud, insurance fraud, corporate tax fraud, computer-related and other high-tech crime, check fraud, counterfeiting, telecommunications fraud, credit and debit card fraud, corporate financial crime, money laundering, savings and loan fraud, coupon and rebate fraud, and arson for profit. Annual losses from the preceding white-collar crimes are estimated at $426 billion to $1.7 trillion.”
Business crime is just an integral part of business and the media never stigmatizes the white majority as thief and mega-criminals damaging society in very significant ways that impact living standards. There has always been a correlation between social class and crime, just as there has been a correlation between race/ethnicity. The political system, the criminal justice system and the media reflect as much in their treatment of different crimes. For example, hate crimes in America, according to the FBI, are committed largely by whites. However, there is no stigma attached to the entire white majority for hate crimes rooted in race/ethnic/religious/gender prejudice. The reason is that the media attributes hate crimes to isolated cases whereas it refuses to do the same with minority petty crime or gun-violence crime involving narcotics.
Whereas the media covers black-on-white crime to prove that whites are the victims of an entire minority population suspect of criminal tendencies, white-on-black racist crime is covered as isolated incidents of disturbed individuals. In other words, the criminal mind of the white person has malfunctioned, while the criminal mind of the black person is a reflection of the entire black community at odds with the white majority and refusal to conform to white majority institutional law and order structure. In the absence of a structural change in the political system, there will never be a change in the criminal; justice system and media attitudes will continue to reflect the views of the political and socioeconomic elites whose crimes are the absence of social justice that gives rise to criminal conduct.
Crime is historically an issue around which conservative try to rally public support because they are interested in promoting a fear of culture that maintains social and political conformity. The real enemy of society is the petty criminal, the drug user, the gang member killing other gang members, but never the political economy and social structure that have created the conditions for these people to operate against the status quo. Not to minimize the “functionalist” theory of crime that sees the issue from the prism of lack of moral regulation (Durkheim), or the “control theory” that places all emphasis on control mechanisms to deter crime, but I stress conflict theory because it takes into account structural causes and conflict between social groups and power elites endeavoring to preserve their privileges. In addition, the case of crimes in America has the racial dimension that may not be as significant in a more homogeneous society.
Racial profiling is a reality of the American justice system all the way from the cop on the beat targeting minorities to the judges passing down prison terms. The so-called “war on drugs” was racially-based and motivated by the Reagan administration’s zeal to punish the poor. The result of this hysteria was the rise of non-violent offenders from a mere 50,000 when Reagan was elected to more than 400,000 by the end of the Clinton presidency. Not surprisingly, the people incarcerated were predominantly minorities, while drug use among middle class white America increased.
The war on drugs has been an unmitigated failure in curbing drug use and drug-related crime because the US is a mere 4% of the world’s population but consumes about a quarter of the world’s drugs, and this is not the poor and minorities but the middle class whites. Therefore, the farce of the war on drugs has not made a dent in capturing the white wholesale drug suppliers, the white bankers laundering money, and the white officials accepting bribes to allow the multi-billion dollar drug trade to thrive.
Related to drug violence which has its roots in profits that benefit mainstream institutions we have gang violence that apparently impacts all US cities with a population of quarter of a million or higher and about 10% of rural areas for an estimated 25,000 gangs and three-quarter of a million youths involved in such activities. Because about half of gang members are Hispanic and one-third black, the media projects this as indicative of the breakdown in the morality of minority communities.
Looking the issue of crime from a conservative sociopolitical perspective, it becomes one of family values and the problem of the individual and family, and it has absolutely nothing to do with society as though individuals and families live in isolation of the institutional mainstream that shapes their lives. In other words, the fact that the mom and dad lost their jobs, or they are locked in low-paying jobs, kids go to inner city schools that are chronically underfunded are not variable in crime. The absence of investment in roads, parks recreational facilities in poor neighborhoods, all these are unrelated to gang violence as far as the apologists of the class-race justice system are concerned; the only thing that matters is that they are black or Hispanic with innate propensities toward violence.
Although gang violence costs society an estimated $100 billion annually, local, state and federal Government place all resources on punishment instead of addressing the fundamental causes of poverty that lead people to crime. This in part ideologically and politically motivated based on a conservative mindset that prevails in America about crime, and one associated with the Reagan administration. For social conservatives and a segment of the broader population criminal conduct is a flaw if not a sin of the individual rather than a structural byproduct of socioeconomic inequality and absence of social justice. This is a reflection of Christian fundamentalist influence in politics about the issue of crime.
The victims of crime are mostly the poor and minorities rather than white middle class, although the mass media and politicians present the image that such violence has the white middle class as its targeted victim. The American class-based criminal justice system is based on allowing multi-billion dollar corporations and the wealthy to go free when they commit crimes that cost society at large, while focusing on the neighborhood Hispanic gang member who shot a rival gang member after a drug deal went bad. Meanwhile the authorities are not tracking financial transactions through banks by wholesale drug traffickers, but instead focus on preventing the gang member from distributing in the ghetto where they live and die.
The Liberal-Conservative debate on better education to lessen gang violence is itself a distraction because both liberals and conservatives serve the same socioeconomic and political system and differ only on cultural issues and values pertaining to questions on gender, race, and ethnicity. Can the educational system fix a problem that is much wider in society? For example, no matter how great the school that a child attends, if conditions for his family and neighborhood are wretched because the parents’ socioeconomic status is very low, the ideas inculcated into the young mind of the student can only go so far before the reality of misery at home and the neighborhood kick in. Conservatives ever since the French Revolution believed that ideas shape the human mind to the exclusion of material conditions. History has proved them wrong, because people act out of necessity stemming from material conditions not ideas imbued with moral messages.
There is something seriously wrong with the criminal justice system and society when three out of four prisoners in 30 states are arrested within five years of release. This suggests a problem with the integration of the ex-prisoner in society for a number of reasons. Prisoners regard the state penitentiary a university where they actually learn how to become better criminals from other inmates instead of reforming as is the presumed goal of the state penitentiary. Why are x-cons arrested so quickly and why so many in comparison with other countries around the world? Statistics indicate that about 40% arrested from drug violations, 38% for property offenses and the rest for violent crimes.
Excluded from many employment opportunities with any kind of good pay and prospects, ex-cons do not qualify for public housing, education loans, food stamps and even voting rights. This leaves crime the only avenue left open to survive, other than begging in the streets or taken in by a charitable relative or organization that is favorably inclined. All of this is well known to politicians, the media and academics criticizing the prisoner for failing to integrate, while excusing the system that preclude integration.
Conservatives blame liberal democracy for the levels of high crime in America compared with other industrialized countries that have a much lower crime rate and low prison population. The conservative argument is there is not sufficient punishment, that government is too lenient toward immigrants prone to crime, that minorities use civil rights laws to circumvent the law. Conservative politicians, the media, and various analysts from think tanks and academia are constantly reinforcing fears among the public about crime as ubiquitous in society to the degree that people fear of opening their door because a criminal will be waiting to steal from them. In fact, crime is confined largely to poor and minority neighborhoods that do not have electronic protection systems, police protection to the degree a wealthy middle class neighborhood does, and private security as well as neighborhood watch groups.
Conservatives and the media blame “liberal democracy” that is in fact non-existent considering that a quasi-police state is now in full swing in the US. In the post 9/11 political culture and legal environment, police state methods are justified in the name of law and order and in the name of national security. The convergence of local law and order and national security actually has its origins in the Cold War, but it has assumed entirely new dimension with Muslims as a target group in the 21st century replacing Communists that had the same honor in the 20th century. The ideology is the same, namely to crush dissent. People of color and Muslims are “natural” suspects not just by the police who profile them, but society that has its prejudices reinforced by the media, politicians and many academics.
How does the US differ from other advanced nations and how is similar to Third World authoritarian countries in the criminal justice domain? The US has more crime than industrialized countries, according to the OECD, and its criminal justice system is about as punitive as in many authoritarian countries. Comparing the US with Saudi Arabia, which has a very different culture and it is an authoritarian society, the US ranks very poorly in crime statistics except in the area of punishment that is about as strict. But what if we are to compare the US with Switzerland that is more democratic and certainly less militaristic than the US? As far as weapons ownership in private hands, in 2007 US just under 5% of the world's population is estimated to own between 35 and 50% of the world's guns. Switzerland ranks higher than the US as far as gun ownership.
Switzerland has a population of around 6 million and it seems that one-third is gun owners. If Switzerland has more weapons per capita than the US, how do we explain that it has a very low crime rate not according to US standards, but any standard in the world? Both countries are capitalist and have a bourgeois institutional structure. The only rational explanation for their differences is the deeply-rooted culture of violence in American history, militaristic foreign policy, the glorification of violence in a popular culture of atomism, the treatment of criminals and different criminal justice system, and the low priority for social justice that gives rise to crime.
Canada is right next door to the US with similar economy and social structure. However, whereas the US has a prison population rate of 700 per 100,000, Canada’s is 106, Germany 96 and India at 29. Are Canada, India, and Germany less democratic and less open societies than the US that has more than four times higher than the world average prison population? The policy emphasis in the US is on punishing harshly and not rehabilitation of ex-cons so they could reintegrate in society. These factors make it easier for high rates of recidivism. Whereas in Canada and UK burglary is punished about five to seven months, in the US it is three times higher. Although an estimated 1,600 are released daily (600,000 annually), they come out in the same systemic conditions – lack of jobs, affordable housing and social services - that brought to prison initially.
Crime in America and the criminal justice system will become much worse for a number of political, economic and social reasons. First, the political climate in America has been shifting toward the right ever since the Iranian and Nicaraguan revolutions of 1979. The Cold War was quickly replaced with the war on terror that created a convergence between national security and domestic security, justifying the quasi-police state methods applied.
To justify militarism and exorbitant defense spending in time of peace, the government – Democrats or Republicans – will use fear mongering and demonizing foreign enemies to keep the population at home in political conformity. As the economy expands but does not result in upward socioeconomic mobility because GDP growth will not be sufficiently high to absorb public debt costs while capital concentration will continue, the weakening of the middle class will continue. The issue of crime will remain at the core of media coverage because it will continue to serve its purpose of mass distraction. The poor and minorities will remain the core of criminal activities. Feeling increasingly marginalized by a system that caters to fewer and fewer people amid the contradictions of an economy that overproduces, the poor whites and poor minorities will remain the focus of the police for petty neighborhood crimes to gun-violence offenses. The prison system will become even more rigid and politicians will continue to demand even harsher sentencing and longer prison terms.
Containing crime in America is an issue on which conservative politicians and media have been focused, but their efforts have not worked as crime and prison statistics indicate. On the contrary, the US remains number one in the world in prison population and one of the highest in crime. Unless there is a total overhaul of the criminal justice system and the culture among law enforcement changes, we can expect worse things to come with everyone paying higher taxes to fund security and prisons instead of schools and jobs programs. Crime prevention is difficult because the same failed methods of placing all emphasis on punishment as the sole focus of the state have remained in place due to ideological and political reasons.
The underlying assumptions of what makes a criminal are important in this endeavor. If we adopt the religious assumptions of the Middle Ages that people are inherently evil and must be punished because they cannot be reformed merely because society marginalized them and they are reacting with defiance, then we would have the result we see in US today, focused on the poor and minorities. This reflects a political/ideological decision because the criminal justice system is an extension of state policy intended to protect private property. The policies of the US and their practices in the field of criminal justice indicate that the political and economic elites want a police state society and do not want to lessen this problem, no matter the rhetoric from liberals or conservatives.
If the focus goes from the police-state punitive methods to greater social justice, then the public will realize the culture of fear that the state and media have been promoting is a distraction from the inequities that exist. Policing America domestically is more in line with and an extension of US foreign policy of policing the world. If the policy focus changes to reform society, it would mean undertaking systemic changes in the social structure, economy and political system. The criminal justice system is an appendage of the larger society that is based on racial/ethnic, gender and social inequality. It is simply impossible to bring about greater social justice and “democratize” the criminal justice system in the absence of addressing broader societal changes.
Of course, the other way the US could contain crime is to introduce even harsher sentences, as I am convinced it will do in the future. This means longer prison sentences, more death penalties, more police-state methods, and more police killings of minority youth in the streets in the name of law and order. Ironically, the more rigid the police enforcement mechanisms becomes, the more popular resistance it encounters in an open society that demands conformity to the law and civil rights.
One may ask how more rigid can the US become in the criminal justice system, considering that it ranking among nations stressing punishment rather than rehabilitation is already very high? How many city mayors, governors, congressmen and presidents have run campaigns on the law and order issue? It just does not pay to question a politician who is “tough on crime”, any more than it pays to question unilateral militarist solutions to international conflicts because the journalist, academic or consultant knows rewards come only to conformists. How can a political candidate possibly lose running on law and order, considering that opposing such a position on the surface appears to be supporting crime and chaos and advocating disruption of society? Regardless of racist police-state methods, the mass media has done its part to prepare the public ideologically to accept even harsher criminal justice system that is a never-ending cycle targeting the poor and minorities because the business community is interested in protecting its property and investment, and has no interest in social justice.
If the US is looking for models from other countries with low crime rates, it could look to a number of them including Denmark or Japan. However, this means that the cultures of Denmark and Japan must somehow be transported to the US along with all of their institutions because crime does not take place in isolation of the rest of society but within its broader societal context. In other words, the idea of using isolated technical aspects, or technology such as police officers equipped with cameras to prevent them from abusing their authority, will do absolutely nothing to change conditions as they exist currently. Clearly, there is a multi-billion dollar industry in America profiting from the fear the public has about crime, so these corporations have no problem with the status quo. Everything from home detection and spy cameras to insurance plans and private security officers account for a very profitable industry that could be cut down to size if the country did not have a social, economic and political system based on social injustice.
Jon Kofas is a retired university Professor from Indiana University.
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