PowerPoint One

History from a critical perspective

  • History is written from records left by the privileged – Zinn
  • Most history is written from a view toward the west – from the conquerors – but what would that history look like if written looking east – from the view of the conquered? – Dee Brown  
  • Need to examine the social and political context of crime and criminal justice
  • You can’t be neutral on a moving train” – Zinn  
  • the world is constantly changing and no one can possibly be unbiased
  • Must consider variables like class, race and gender inequalities  
  • Need to ask: “What are they not telling us?”

Sociological Imagination

  • Need to "grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society.“

         "Personal troubles of milieu" and "public issues of social structure."

        “personal troubles” – issues affecting the individual only (e.g., relations with his family, money problems, work problems)

        “public issues of social structure” – "matters that transcend those local environments of the individual" and when "some value cherished by publics is felt to be threatened“ A person may be addicted to a drug or alcohol and that is his personal issue

        but when millions are then it is a “public health” issue related to the social structure of society

        dig beneath the everyday assumptions and unquestioned "truths" - there is a world taken for granted that must be challenged

 Zinn’s Radical History

          Five reasons why a “radical history” will help:

        (1) We can intensify, expand, sharpen our perception of how bad things are, for the victims of the world

        (2) We can expose the pretensions of government to either neutrality or beneficence

        (3) We can expose the ideology that pervades our culture -  “ideology” meaning a rationale for the going order

        (4) We can recapture those few moments in the past which show the possibility of a better way of life than that which has dominated the earth thus far

        (5) We can show how good social movements can go wrong, how leaders can betray their followers, how rebels can become bureaucrats, how ideals can become frozen and reified

 The Importance of Social Class

          “Class” is a word you rarely hear – except in college

         Class position determines just about everything in life

        Why are you at UNLV and not Harvard?

 Class determines the following:

        what behaviors come to be defined as "criminal" and thus subject to their enforcement

        who is defined as "criminal“

        how far into the cj system a particular case is processed

        the final sentence of a criminal case. 

        Also related to whether or not one can make bail, and whether or not one has an attorney, and even the quality of the representation

 Pyrrhic defeat theory

          a "Pyrrhic victory" is where a particular battle is won, but the costs in terms of troops lost amounts to a defeat. 

         Reiman suggests that "the failure of the criminal justice system yields such benefits to those in positions of power that it amounts to success“

 Designed to Fail?

          The cj system is designed to fail

        Distorts the crime picture by deflecting the discontents and anger of middle class Americans toward the poor and racial minorities

        Focuses on crimes of the poor rather than the rich

        Operates as if crime is merely a function of isolated acts by individual offenders and has no underlying social causes

 Criminal Law -basic foundation of the criminal justice system

          What is a “Crime”? Why are some harmful behaviors defined as “crime” and not others?

        Tobacco and alcohol cause in excess of 500,000 deaths in America (tobacco causes an est. 5 mil deaths worldwide) and are not illegal – why?

        Homicide is the illegal taking of a human life – sometimes killing someone is perfectly legal

        Rape is supposed to be universally condemned – but in many cases the offender is not prosecuted because some believe “she asked for it”

         Law is a creation of specific people holding positions of authority

         it is not the creation of a divine authority, as was once believed

 Three Models of the Law

 I.    Consensus Model of Law

          reflects the "will of the people" and values held in common

         laws serves to establish the "moral boundaries" of a community or society

         law is an instrument used to resolve conflicting interests in a society – it is neutral as far as class or race or gender is concerned

         law helps to maintain "social order“

         protects public, not private interests

         Law is needed to restrain human’s “wicked ways”

II.    Interest Group/Conflict model

          While the consensus model argues that “societal needs” are met through law, the conflict model asks “whose needs”?

         Conflict model starts with the fact that society is highly segmented along class, racial and gender lines

         Quinney wrote: “Law is a result of the operation of interests and incorporates the interests of specific persons and groups ... Law is made by men, representing special interests, who have the power to translate their interests into public policy"

 The social reality of crime as an example:

          What this theory suggests is that “crime” is a “social construction” not something inherent in the behavior itself

         What is considered a “crime” in one era might not be considered in another era

        Drug laws are a classic case in point

         The key is the notion of “power”


         Power - the ability of persons and groups to determine the conduct of other persons and groups.

         In a class society, some groups have more power than others and are able to have their interests represented in policy decisions, often at the expense of less powerful groups.

        Example: white, upper‑class males have more power and their interests are more likely to be represented than those of working‑ or lower‑class minorities and women.

 III.    A Critical/Marxist Model of Law

          Law is part of the superstructure of society and helps support and perpetuate the substructure or economic base, namely a capitalist economic and social system

         Two variations:


         law is an "instrument" or tool through which the ruling class (that relatively small group that owns and controls most of the wealth in society - or what Marx called the means of production) dominates the society


         The law might sometimes operate against the short-term interests of the ruling class but in favor of the long-term interests of the capitalist system as a whole

         The ruling class does not always get its way

         Law may serve other groups from time to time – e.g., civil rights laws

         But regardless, the capitalist system survives because it benefits a small minority the most

Inequality today  

         Gini coefficient measures income inequality


         These charts represent the latest figures on inequality.


The Reality of Law

         The law is not some mystical force

         Too often the law is thought of as a cure-all for societal ills. 

         Also, it has been said that society is ruled by law, not by men. 

        On the contrary, society is ruled by men (not women) and that the law serves to legitimate and sometimes obscure this rule.

         The “bottom line” is that wealth and power is highly concentrated in America – about 1% have more than 40% of all the wealth

         It really doesn't matter that the law does not always side with these rulers, for it doesn't have to, as long as profits can be made and the capitalist system survives

         And it is not as if no one else but this small group of capitalists receives the benefits of capitalism, for a lot of other people do as well – just enough to make it seem as if “anyone can become rich” – the classic American myth

         the law favors especially the very wealthy, but it favors enough of the rest of the population to appear to be equal. 

         Yet the law clearly has never done a good job supporting the most marginalized sectors of the population: the poor in general, and African-Americans, Native-Americans and other minorities.

         The “majestic equality of law” – it prohibits both the rich and the poor from sleeping under bridges and park benches – Anatole France

         You can’t have equal justice in an unequal society

Crimes in high places  

         Look at all the corporate offenders, guilty of robbing the American people of billions of dollars and getting the equivalent of a slap on the wrist, when thousands of poor criminals are serving 20 to life for possessing a small amount of “illegal” substances – more time on average than murderers!

     Yes Bernie Madoff is in jail, but he is the exception that proves the general rule (but his case is not over yet)

         White collar and corporate crime are far more costly than ordinary crime

         About $1.5 trillion each year

         More than 100,000 people die as a result

         This does not include all the lobbyists who successfully bribe members of Congress

     Almost 35,000, double what the number was in 2000 according to the Washington Post


The "Dangerous Classes"

     •         first used by Charles Loring Brace in his book of 1872 called The Dangerous Classes of New York

         what Marx called the lumpenproletariat

        “thieves and criminals of all kinds, living on the crumbs of society, people without a definite trade, vagabonds, people without a hearth or home.”

        A segment of society that is inevitable under capitalism in that it is “not wholly integrated into the division of labor”

         relative surplus population or reserve army

        more or less chronically unemployed segment of the population, primarily because of mechanization which renders them “redundant” and hence "superfluous" as far as producing profits is concerned.

 The Surplus Population

     •         From this view the the goal of the CJ system is to “manage” this group

         John Irwin – in his 1985 book, he noted that jails function to manage the "rabble" or "underclass" in society

§         people who have been regarded as "disreputable" and "detached" from mainstream society 

§         Jonathan Simon’s book about parole (1993) concluded that one of the main functions of the parole system is to "secure" the underclass

§         Tax dollars used to contain crime "in the underclass“

     •         College grads with cj degrees will also serve this function

 Theme of the class

         Golden Rule - "those who have the gold make the rules.“

        And the rules usually do not apply to them

         On any given day, in courtrooms all over the country, we have essentially one class passing judgment on another class. 

        Our system is fundamentally a system of class justice.

        It has been this way from the start.