The Criminal Justice System Should Never Define Our Neighborhoods for Us

[Parts of the following selection were taken from ch. 4 of my Master’s thesis]

Be careful. Don’t allow the criminal justice system to define people or the neighborhoods in your city. This is your responsibility.

The criminal justice system’s primary purpose is to protect the public, maintain order, and preserve justice in society, particularly, by preventing and controlling crime.[1] As such, it specializes in acquiring and managing criminal information. The criminal justice system is not the kind of institution that possesses top of the line, anthropological and sociological dexterity; its primary role and expertise does not involve defining or theorizing about people, culture, or cities. It is an administrative institution that uses the applied sciences. It is what Jacques Ellul calls an “organizational technique” or “technical apparatus,” which resembles a machine, involving “a group of [operational and methodical] movements… organized and traditional, all of which unite to reach a known end.”[2] This end, of course, is public protection and safety. However, as a society, we have allowed—and, in many ways, delegated an authoritative role unto—the criminal justice system to define the very things it was not designed to define: people and neighborhoods.

Granting the criminal justice system this kind of leverage is unwise: it causes the system to misapply its role and create for society inaccurate ways of understanding people and space. An architect attempting to define a neighbor’s home will more likely focus on the architecture of the house rather than the cultural dynamics of the family, who call the house their “home.” The reason for this is that the architect is an architect, and this is the way in which architects tend to interpret homes. In the same way, the justice system will tend to interpret people and neighborhoods narrowly, using criminal data which tends to be rigidly statistical, systematically propositional, and consistent with its own expertise but not always consistent with the broader reality. The system’s interpretation, like the architect above, may be accurate, at least from a certain angle—from the standpoint of the way they appropriate numbers and data—but it is incomplete nevertheless. However, the narrow way in which that information is communicated or understood, especially if the interpretation is absolutized, can distort one’s perception of the people or the neighborhoods being interpreted.

Consider the way in which local justice institutions tend to construct an image of the common criminal (keep in mind that the following is a broad portrait based on national statistics):

The [criminal] is, first of all, a [male]. Of 13.1 million persons arrested for crimes in 2010, 75 percent were males… Second, he is young. Nearly half (42 percent) of men arrested for all crimes were under the age of 25… Third, he is predominantly urban. Cities with populations over 250,000 had a rate of 275 arrests for violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants, while cities with populations under 10,000 had 146 such arrests per 100,000 inhabitants… Fourth, he is disproportionately black: Blacks are arrested for violent crimes at a rate more than three times that of their percentage in the national population… Finally, he is poor. Almost one-third (29 percent) of 2002 jail inmates were unemployed (without full- or part-time work) prior to being arrested.[3]

Certainly, these criminal statistics reflect actual occurrences of crime arising from the reports made by real civilians. Yet the criminal justice system has a proclivity to focus on the type of crime that exists in the urban context rather than the type of crime that exists among the affluent.[4] While I am not questioning or challenging the veracity of this kind of criminal data, I must point out that the way that this type of data is projected overlooks the characteristics of human personality and reduces people into lifeless numbers. This kind of lifeless data is then reconstructed into an image of criminality that is broadly applied, an image that the system–and consequently society–treats as a primary anthropological lens for engaging the urban context.

Surely these types of images are helpful in many ways for justice institutions, but they ultimately distort the image of the people represented by the numbers (e.g. young, Black males from poor urban neighborhoods). By generalizing criminality in this way, the justice system ultimately moves beyond managing criminal data and into overgeneralizing a whole community of people. The statistics represent the criminality of a few, but the image created includes the characteristics of the many. As a result, both the criminals and the broader community to which the criminals belong become indistinguishable. In mathematical terms, the numerator (criminals) is equated with the denominator (their ethnic community), and the fraction (differences) consequently transforms into a whole number (sameness).

Be careful. Don’t let the criminal justice system define people or your neighborhoods for you. Otherwise, you will also be, like many others, part of a culture that wrongfully generalizes groups of people. Instead, get to know your neighbors and you neighborhood. Then you will have a much more accurate grasp of who your neighbors are and what their neighborhoods are like.

[1] Leslie J. Smith, Coordinating the Criminal Justice System: A Guide to Improve the Effective Administration of Justice (Lanham: University Press, 2008), 2-3.
[2] Jaque Ellul, The Technological Society, trans. John Wilkinson (New York: Vintage Books, 1964), 22, 100, 13.
[3] Jeffrey Reiman and Paul Leighton, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Poorer: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice, 10th ed. (New York: Routledge Publisher, 2016). Kindle ed., chap. 2.
[4] Gregg Barak, Paul Leighton, Jeanne Flavin, Class, Race, Gender, and Crime: The Social Realities of Justice in America, 3rd ed. (Landham: Rowman& Littlefield Publishers, 2010), 227.

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