Cultural Crime

This post is inspired by Kiley and her title “We are NOT all equal under the law”

I have no intention of addressing the political topic she covers. I have no commentary on Hilary Clinton or the FBI. Frankly, I don’t even have enough information to form a valid opinion. What I do have is a pile of books, some of which have been at least partially read. (See “Currently Reading” and Other Lies)

One of the books I’ve been slowly (on again, off again) making my way through specifically deals with women under the law. Whores and Thieves of the Worst Kind: A Study of Women, Crime, and Prisons, 1835-2000 by L. Mara Dodge. The work is pretty academic (repetitive, redundant, repetitive). However, she covers enormous ground in the duration and depth of her work about women and crime. I’ve been really impressed with the extent of her research, going into records of prisons, diaries and letters of wardens and inmates, and interviewing guards. I’m also struck by her first or second hand experiences with the prison system. From what I can tell she is a worthy Virgil to the prison industry and women it contains.

She has a fantastic chapter titled “An Act Becomes A Crime” which spells out how crime is anything but clear cut in many cases. Instead, it relies on cultural context and the specific people involved. She explains the “criminal justice funnel”

Criminal cases are filtered through a lengthy judicial process in which large numbers of cases are eliminated at each stage. At the first stage, police can fail to make an arrest or can choose to file misdemeanor rather than felony charges. Even after a formal arrest occurs, state’s attorneys can decide not to prosecute, grand juries can fail to indict, witnesses can refuse to testify, and jurors can acquit. Judges can dismiss a case at any stage from the preliminary hearing to trial.

Dodge walks through several prominent cases pointing out how everyone from the police on the scene to the coroners in the morgue determine how they will handle any set of given actions. “The goal is to uncover the many points which discretion, discrimination, and bias entered the system.”

As Kiley says, and Dodge supports, we are not all created equal. Women without families or influence, people without wealth or support, minorities, all do significantly worse in the justice system over the course of Dodge’s scope. They are more likely to be convicted and the punishments are more severe. As comprehensive as her timeline is, I doubt a radical change in the justice system has been made without note since 2000.

The legal system is bias in many ways. I think understanding the “criminal justice funnel” gives me a greater perspective on the cases that make headlines, the people who are sentenced, and those I will never hear about. Inequality falls heaviest on those most different, more isolated, most radical, those who step outside of the norm.

 

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