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From Safety Net To Dragnet.

United States

From safety net to dragnet.
If you are young, black and male you might be excused for thinking that
the US is the land of the incarcerated rather than that of the free.
Jerome Miller exposes the American Gulag
and the police-state mentality that underpins it.

As the US social safety net is rent asunder by a rapacious conservative Congress, spending on criminal justice is being ratcheted up to fill the gaping holes. The Federal criminal-justice budget has grown tenfold in the past decade and state spending has surged 848 per cent. The US now spends nearly $200 billion annually on its crime-control industry – one which is primarily focused on the poor and minorities.

An inkling of what is happening emerged when Los Angeles prosecutors ran background checks on the first 1,000 arrestees charged with misdemeanours in the early stages of the 1992 riots – following the acquittal of white police officers for the savage beating of black motorist Rodney King. They discovered that 40 per cent were on probation or parole and 60 per cent had criminal records. Los Angeles deputy city attorney John Wilson commented: ‘This was not an instantaneous “good-guy-rage” kind of thing. This was a “bad guy” taking advantage of a situation out of control.’ What he neglected to point out was that most young black males in LA had experience with the county jail system. A third of all the young black men aged 20-29 in Los Angeles County had already been jailed that same year. State-wide, 104,000 of California’s 625,000 black men aged 16 and older are being arrested each year. Two-thirds of all the 18-year-old, non-white males in California are arrested before reaching the age of 30. The same patterns are showing up everywhere in the country. In Baltimore, Maryland, 75 per cent of African-American men will acquire a criminal record before the age of 35. This makes it pretty hard to sort out the ‘good guys’ from the ‘bad guys’.

If being arrested and having a record is the prime criteria for being a criminal, there are more criminals in our midst than we may care to recognize. The US maintains 50 million active criminal records. Very little of this frenetic law-enforcement activity has to do with serious crime. Of the 14 million arrests annually, only about 2.5 million are for so-called ‘index’ offences. Among the highest number of bookings by charge, according to a 1991 July-September review in Duval County, Florida, were: aggravated assault at 680; petty theft (ie shoplifting) at 1,266; traffic offences (not including driving under the influence) at 2,505; and ‘other offences’ at 2,666. These are charges, not convictions: as many as half of the felony charges – including 80 per cent of the charges for aggravated assault – would not be sustained.

Though a small percentage of this police activity concerned violent crimes, most had to do with these lesser matters. The sheriff aggressively cultivated the perception that violent crime was out of control, demanding bigger jails, more police, more armamentaria (eg sophisticated computerization, criminal-history retrieval, computerized fingerprint scanners and helicopters). A 31-per-cent increase in crime was noted between 1988 and 1991 (while the county was seeking public support for massive jail building ). The Sheriff’s office reported that 3,273 more persons were arrested in July through September 1991 than during the same three months in 1988. However, 85 per cent of the increase fell under two categories: ‘Traffic’ (excluding drunk driving) and ‘Other’, a loosely defined category which included such deadly crimes as feeding of alligator or crocodile, resisting without violence, trespassing, non-support, feeding unsterilized garbage to animals, contempt, and impersonating a massage license holder.

• A young African-American man suffering from asthma and pneumonia was in jail 22 days on $1,500 bond. He had been jailed as a probation violator for not paying $35 in court costs on a four-month-old petty-theft (shoplifting) charge. While in jail he lost his job as a truck driver.

• A 38-year-old African-American electronic engineer – well-dressed, middle-class – was jailed for ‘allowing an unauthorized operator to drive’. As the arrest summary put it: ‘The suspect, who owns the listed vehicle, allowed the co-defendant to drive his car. She did not have a driver’s license and was advised that her license was suspended for failing to pay traffic fines. He was arrested.’

• A 30-year-old man was jailed after having been released from a Florida state prison two weeks earlier, where he had served 6 years. He was out three days and, as per the law, went to the police station to inform them that he was back in town. He was arrested on the spot. He had not paid a four-year-old traffic fine. He was in state prison when the warrant was issued and was unaware of it.

As criminologist Robert Tillman noted, these numbers say less about criminal behaviour than about the ‘social-structural conditions that adversely affect large numbers of young adult males, particularly those within certain strata of society’. When the justice juggernaut is wheeled into our inner-city streets it tends to crush those more easily identified by race, attitude and socio-economic status than by serious criminal behaviour.

Take the following typical cases from my experience as a federal monitor on jail-overcrowding in a large southern city. In one instance, an 18-year-old African-American was sentenced to 45 days for ‘petty theft’, having been charged with taking one cigarette out of a pack on a store shelf, smoking it and returning the pack to the shelf. In another case, a 32-year-old African-American man was sentenced to 60 days for shoplifting a package of lunch meat. Or there was the 32-year-old African-American sentenced to four months for taking a pair of sunglasses. In very few of these cases would a white person of moderate means with adequate legal representation expect to be jailed.

This is not to suggest that no action was necessary. Whether confinement is the most productive approach is open to question, however. As Canadian criminologist John Hagan noted in his presidential address to the American Society of Criminology, ‘there is evidence that contacts with the justice system have especially negative effects for underclass males. Even if most underclass males who are arrested do not go to jail, the experience of arrest can have long-term, even inter-generational repercussions…a criminal-arrest record has detrimental consequences for labour-market outcomes, with negative effects on employment as much as eight years later.’

Are there alternative ways to address crime? Being reasonable, we would have to return to wrestling with ‘root causes’. But this blunt truth hasn’t changed that much. The work to be done in the cities requires massive infusions of funding for rebuilding of the infrastructure, family-support systems, nutrition, improved education, employment opportunities, housing and adequate family income. Relying on the criminal-justice system to deal with these problems simply exacerbates the very pathologies it claims to treat, perversely producing enough new offenders to justify its own need to grow – more police, more courts and more prisons.

We need a different framework within which to consider those events which are potentially criminal. We need to develop processes that would encourage the handling of most such incidents outside the criminal-justice system altogether – through other types of sanctions, compensation, therapy, public health, education and civil procedure. These proposals fall short of this but rest on similar ‘least-harm’ premises. They are presented, not as a blueprint or plan, but as a means of chipping away at the edges of the fictitious entities called ‘crimes’ which the criminal-justice system produces in abundance and upon which so much current policy is based. We might begin by:

• Reporting crime based on convictions rather than arrests.

• Halting all police ‘sting’ operations likely to entice economically vulnerable individuals into crime, and stopping the use of ‘snitches’ in the inner-city drug war, which increases violence and devastates community social bonds.

• Mitigating the endemic opportunism which characterizes US prosecutorial practice by appointing, not electing, local prosecutors – barring both state and appointed federal prosecutors from running for any political office after having served in that role.

• Tailoring sentences to the strengths and weaknesses of the offender as well as the particularity of the crime; reshaping adult criminal-justice procedure to resemble the juvenile court in its original conception – reintroducing a sense of narrative to our considerations.

• Returning probation officers to their original role as unashamed advocates for criminal defendants, not as agents of the court or aides to the prosecutor.

• Demanding accountability of publicly funded human-service professionals such as social workers and guidance counsellors who routinely dump their clientele into the criminal-justice system.

None of this is likely to happen. The US is well on the way to becoming a Gulag society in which the majority of young men of colour will be relegated to prisons or camps by the turn of the century. Having put in place the conditions to ensure a self-fulfilling prophecy on crime control, we will move from disciplining an incorrigible population to controlling a disposable one. This very old adventure avoids the murkiness of root causes while offering a decidedly more comforting analysis to the majority.

Jerome Miller has worked in the US juvenile-justice field for many years.
His most recent book Search and Destroy: African-American Males and the Criminal Justice System, was published by Cambridge University Press this spring.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

New Internationalist issue 282 magazine cover This article is from the August 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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