Monday, March 23, 2009

The Carnival Mirror of Criminal Justice

Easily the best thing about teaching is the fact that you get to do essentially whatever you want. Obviously, you should probably be teaching something interesting/useful and something that fits under the title of the course, but beyond those two minimum requirements, you more or less have a room full of people who you can do whatever you want with. And as a nerd, that's very exciting.

This semester I'm teaching a large introductory lecture course on criminal behavior and social control, and while I'm covering all of the standard material, I'm taking a bit different track than most instructors. What I'm really trying to convey to the students more than anything else is what Jeffrey Reiman calls the carnival mirror of the criminal justice system. The carnival mirror is simply the idea that the criminal justice system places nearly all of its efforts and energies combating a specific type of crime, while ignoring other, arguably more dangerous, crimes. More specifically, pretty much all crime control is focused on the dangerous behavior of the poor (petty robbery, assault, etc.) while the dangerous behavior of the wealthy (pollution, union-busting, fraud, workplace injuries/deaths, etc.) is either ignored or legalized.

Here's a great example -- Carbon Motors Corp has developed a new "super" police car which will supposedly revolutionize the way police fight crime. They justify their $50,000 per car price tag with such handy inventions as an improved on-board computer, automatic license-plate recognition, and seats which more easily accommodate people with their hands cuffed behind their backs, to name a few. These cars will bring policing into the 21st century and make crime control better and easier, they claim.

But, unfortunately, the car has no way to catch Bernie Madoff. You see, while we're in the midst of the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression, all caused by the reckless and more-often-than-not illegal activities of the wealthy, we're still pouring our crime control money into making sure cops can chase down drug dealers more easily.

Now, don't get me wrong, I don't particularly want drug dealers hanging out and selling as openly as they do in my neighborhood, but the last time I checked, none of these dude's behavior has caused the global financial system to go into melt-down. Yet because of our distorted carnival-mirror view of crime, these petty drug dealers will continue to arrested en masse, while those responsible for the melt-down will be quite unlikely to be even charged for anything, let alone end up in the back of a new, high-tech squad car...


Anonymous said...

I agree on this one, what they ought to be designing is cop cars that make it easy to arrest the cops. With all the confiscation and seizure laws placing incentive on dollar value busts, and then backing them up with a bunch of 9/11 superpowers, the potrential for crooked cops and whole police forces to turn turn to the dark side is exponential.

Anonymous said...

That makes sense. The one thing I would like to point out is that Carbon Motors has a point when they reference the fact that Fire Engines are made specifically to fight fires, while police are expected to just buy a stock car and make their own modifications. By the by, sorry for missing class tonight.

-Someone from that room full of people you can do whatever you want to.