Thursday, April 23, 2015

Power: Its Effect on Policing and Punishment in America

           American discourse on crime and criminals is focused on street crime.  Popular media portrays this type of crime to be the majority of crime in America.  In truth, there are many different types of crime that are committed by people and groups of all races, sizes, religions, etc. But not all crime is treated equally— our pedestalled Lady Justice is peaking out from behind her blindfold and letting what she sees influence her decision making process. 
            The aforementioned phenomenon of street crime is stereotypically committed by poor, young, black men, in inner city neighborhoods.  Stricter law enforcement and harsher punishments have been put in place over the past few decades.  Whether they are poor, of color, non-Christian, mentally or physically disabled, queer, or any other marginalizing quality America wants and encourages the criminal justice system and greater society to criminalize people who do not conform to picket fence ideal. 
            Then there are the wealthy, white, heterosexual, able-bodied, Christian men pulling the strings.  They go by many names but commit the same type of crimes; white-collar.  Underrepresented and largely ignored in media and law enforcement these white-collar criminals run around creating chaos unscathed. 
            When one takes a step back to ponder the many isms that construct American culture one might rightly wonder why there is such a chasm in crime and justice.  The short answer is power; individual and institutional power overlap to bolster white collar criminals until they are seemingly above the law and general morality. 
            The stereotypical offenders in each group are different but also different are the types of crimes committed.  Street crime includes transgressions ranging from disorderly conduct to loitering to sitting down where it’s prohibited to buying marijuana.  Street crime is smaller scale but can involve violence.  White-collar crime includes transgressions such as money laundering, embezzlement, fraud, and tax evasion.  White-collar crime is higher stakes but usually does not directly harm anyone’s safety.    
            These two umbrellas of crime are policed and punished differently.  Street criminals are often caught with racial profiling.  They usually (as most are poor and black) have both individual and institutional racism and classism working against them.  They face a higher likelihood of arrest and conviction and then lengthy prison sentences than white-collar criminals.  White-collar criminals usually (as most are wealthy and white) have racial and class privilege working for them.  As rules and regulations on the poor and black have increased they have been gutted for CEOs, corporations, and other kinds of white-collar criminals. There are more police officers in poor, black communities actively looking for crime than in wealthy, white suburbs (where the police are mainly seen and act as protectors).  There are not enough regulators to effectively monitor potential white collar criminals in big business.  When white-collar criminals are caught and called on their illegal and immoral activities they often face a fine that, while large, is negligible to their bottom line. 
            It is not an accident that these two categories of crime are treated differently.  Intersecting systems of oppression seems to be the root cause behind the policy and opinion that drives the heavy and harsh treatment of street criminals.  White-collar criminals, who possess the power to control the economy and therefore control life for American citizens, are protected and coddled by the criminal justice system.  The very people these CEOs and corporations exploit are then used as a human shield; to punish the big business would harm working class families who aren’t the guilty party.  So nothing effective is done. 
            Lady Justice sees race, sex, religion, and all those things that make humans diverse, but what really tips her scale is power.  From buying politicians to controlling the economy white collar criminals are in a position of massive power.  This power— which takes on many forms and is cultivated in many ways— is the main reason behind the immense divide in policing and punishment in American society. 

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