Crime, Inequality and Justice
Most studies of crime and justice take a narrow approach to the subject and treat crime as simply a violation of a legalized social norm that carries a penal sanction. Justice is equated with the fulfillment of legally guaranteed “due process” rights or “equal protection.” While in no way abandoning these meanings of crime and justice, we adopt a broader cultural approach. Our approach explores crime control and the administration of criminal justice from a position of “social constructionism” (Barak 1994; 1996). We view the criminal justice system as a culturally powerful label-conferring institution that has developed in relation to the changing meanings of criminal law. We also view the definitions of ‘crime’ and ‘criminals’ as a product of moral agents, social movements, political interests, media dissemination, and policy-makers (Best 1990; Jenkins 1994; Potter and Kappeler 1998). Among the main factors involved in producing ‘crime’ and ‘criminals’ are class, race, and gender.
We expand upon the narrower legalistic meanings of crime control by examining the historical and contemporary practices of criminal justice as these have been shaped and experienced by the rich and poor, by racial and ethnic majorities and minorities, by men and women. We also provide richer contexts for understanding the numerous social realities of justice in America. Analytically, for example, we look at social groupings in America in isolation and in combination. This analysis reveals many different “social realities” of crime, crime control, and criminal justice, encouraging the reader to see crime and justice from multiple perspectives rather than from the one-dimensional perspective of legal order. Thus, as used in this text, ‘justice’ can refer not only to criminal justice, but to political, economic, social, racial, ethnic, sexual, and religious justice.
One of the underlying assumptions that drives our study has to do with the fundamental distinction that anthropologists, sociologists, and others make between insider and outsider groups. Whether we are talking within nations or between nations, the ages-old interactions and conflicts among social groups have always possessed an element of we/they or us/them. Accordingly, “insiders” or members of one social group tend to see themselves as possessing virtues not possessed by “outsiders” or members of other social groups. For example, one’s own group of origin is typically seen as less violent, aggressive, or criminal, and more trustworthy, peace-loving, and law-abiding than members of the “other” group.
For many millennia and throughout the world and the United States, these ethnocentric beliefs have shaped social relations across lines of what we now think of as class, race/ethnicity, gender, nationality, sexuality, religion, and more. In our own contemporary period, when it is politically incorrect to hold bigoted views about “others” (i.e., racial and ethnic minorities, gays, Jews), it is still politically acceptable to hold such views about “criminals.” So when public discourse has dwelled on “welfare cheats” or “violent criminals,” what typically comes to mind are racially charged subtexts with images of the “other”. In the 1980s, this phenomenon was classically demonstrated when the media and ethnographers alike talked about drug-addicted mothers, perpetuating racial stereotypes of African American women trading sex for crack, rather than middle-class white women snorting the more expensive powder cocaine. While pregnant poor and black women became targets of the criminal justice system, middle- and upper-class women escaped scrutiny of criminal justice agents into the confines of private detoxification facilities (Humphries 1999).
In other words, we see crime as more than the violation of a legalized social norm. Justice is more than the equal application of laws. Similarly, the study of crime and crime control is more than analyzing the behavior of criminals and the institutional agents of the criminal justice system. As Visano has emphasized:
The study of crime is an analysis of being, becoming and experiencing “otherness.” Crime is a challenge to a particular socially constructed and historically rooted social order. The study of crime, therefore, is an inquiry into expressions of power, cultural controls and contexts of contests. Accordingly, the designated criminal is set apart and relegated to the margins according to a disciplining discourse about differences (1998: 1).
This book is an attempt to locate the study of crime control in the context of being and becoming a person of “class, race, and gender” and in experiencing “otherness” in the social realities of crime and justice. We are interested in how class, race and gender biases become reflected in the criminal justice system – and how criminology, law, and criminal justice practices help to (re)create the ‘other’. Our book is an attempt to show that concern about ‘crime’ and ‘criminals’ are socially and materially constructed phenomena, reproduced daily through various discussions in the streets, the media, the home, the government, the courts, and other cultural bodies.
What does not become subject to crime and crime control because of cultural silences is important too. In other words, we will discuss those otherwise harmful and injurious behaviors that have not been marginalized or made deviant and criminal. Criminality and crime range from relatively minor infractions like petty theft, to trafficking in illegal contraband, to extremely violent acts of commission and omission. Similarly, criminals may equally vary from “single, simple, so-called situated and clearly pathologized individual offenders to more elusive, complex, global, sovereign and corporate organizations” (Visano 1998: 1). Some harmful acts and offenders are not defined as crime and criminals, but among those that are, only some actors and offenses are regarded as “real” threats to the social order and, therefore, worthy of managing and controlling. For these reasons, crime control becomes the regulation of a relatively small number of acts that have been designated as threatening to the social order. The administration of criminal justice becomes the institutionalized or patterned responses for processing those threats. This way of functioning becomes accepted and normalized; ideology convinces people that the patterns are inevitable and ‘just.’
However, justice is more than the patterned reactions to criminal offenders. It is also more than the operations and functions of the criminal justice system that consist of legislative codes, judicial decisions, law enforcement practices, sentencing policies, and penal sanctions.
Although such practices are important, the meanings of justice entail larger political, economic, and social relations. The late Judge Bazelon commented that “it is simply unjust to place people in dehumanizing social conditions, to do nothing about those conditions, and then command those who suffer, ‘Behave – or else!’” (in
Leighton and Reiman 2001: 39). Although the police might not coerce a suspect into confessing and the defendant might have a lawyer for representation in court, Bazelon points to important additional considerations about the justice involved with ‘tough on crime’ policies in the inner cities. Likewise, crime control policies that do not take into account larger contexts are not likely to be effective. As Bazelon comments, “we cannot produce a class of desperate and angry citizens by closing off, for many years, all means of economic advancement and fulfillment for a sizeable part of the population, and thereafter expect a crime-free society” (ibid).
The point is that the narrow conceptions of crime and justice are valid and pragmatic, but are not sufficient by themselves. Instead, we believe that our analysis of criminal justice is strengthened when the broader social and cultural conceptions of crime and justice, in conjunction with the more narrow and legalistic ones, are investigated and evaluated together. We also believe that this kind of comparative inquiry sheds more light on important (but frequently neglected) questions of “equal justice for all.” Finally, in the spirit of critical pedagogy, we believe that this type of integrative analysis and its implications can help move the administration of justice closer to the ideals of peace and human liberation.