In 1967 President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice observed that the system was “not designed to eliminate the conditions in which most crime breeds.” It noted that “crime flourishes where the conditions of life are the worst”, and thus what needs to be done is “to eliminate slums and ghettoes, to improve education, to provide jobs, to make sure that every American is given the opportunities and freedoms that will enable him to assume his responsibilities.”
Criminal behavior is a result of the larger structural system around us and all of the various pressures and incentives that exist within it. Crime doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but is a product of environmental forces and the ways in which we are likely to respond to them. A 1992 study found a strong correlation between unemployment and crime. (Merva & Fowles, Effects of Diminished Economic Opportunities on Social Stress, Economic Policy Institute, 1992)
Instead of dealing with the “conditions in which crime breeds” decision-makers decided to use police and to build prisons. This “superfluous population” of people that capitalism had no use for (this was how those at the top of the establishment viewed them) were dealt with through mass incarceration. “Zero-tolerance” and “3 strike” policies and harsh police tactics swept these people up into the criminal justice system, often times utilizing massive brutality and violations of rights and freedoms while making arrests based on trumped up charges and giving extraordinary sentence lengths way out of proportion with the crime committed. The police resembled an occupying force utilized against the poor that served as a tool of social control and repression.
This all was mainly targeted against blacks, who on the whole have been kept to the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder due to a historical pattern of discrimination. The cops largely adopted a racist ideology and targeted people based on their skin color, even though this kind of criminal behavior, mainly 1-on-1 offenses like theft and assaults, are related to deprivation and poverty, not race. Impoverished white communities have the same persistence of crime that impoverished black communities have.
H.R. Halderman, one of Nixon’s aides, said that “President Nixon emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” (Christian Parenti, Lockdown America, p. 3)
That system was the war on drugs, which openly was aimed at low level drug users and dealers (how could anyone have taken them seriously with a strategy like that?) which massively incarcerated the disenfranchised classes for something that all classes participate in nearly equally. African-Americans use and sell drugs at about the same rates as whites. Those who filled the massive prison population boom were mainly drug offenders from poor, minority backgrounds.
Recently another Nixon insider, John Ehrlichman, explained the reasoning behind all of this: “You want to know what this was really about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
This is what Michelle Alexander, a highly acclaimed civil rights lawyer and legal scholar, is talking about when she describes the New Jim Crow, a system of criminalization which puts millions of already marginalized people into a “permanent second-class citizenship” status through their criminal records. Once branded as criminal, even for things like petty offenses, the authorities are then able to further intrude upon people’s lives and violate rights and freedoms, which in turn leads to the branding of more serious criminal labels which furthers the legal ability to violate rights even more. The initial stage of this process usually begins at an extremely young age, children are arrested in grade school for things like “insubordination” or talking back to teachers. In The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, Reiman describes that when predominately poor and minority children get caught by police for a petty offense, they are more likely to be treated as though they need to be punished and taught a lesson. When children at the top of the socioeconomic ladder get caught for similar offenses, they are more likely to be treated as though they made a mistake and deserve a second chance. In our society we treat poor minorities as though they are criminals who need to be punished while we treat the rich as though they are people with problems that are in need of help.
The problem is that we are faced with an institutional system set up to protect the powerful and punish the poor, one which enacts policies and economic restructuring that massively redistributes wealth to a privileged minority and then responds to the problems which arise from those brutalized by these policies with mass incarceration and police repression. Criminal law brandishes a whole class of people into a status of second-class citizenship, and social problems which necessitate education and opportunities are dealt with through violence. All while the major criminals in corporate boardrooms are free to continue harming society as they please while generating massive profits. Highly centralized economic power then translates into political power, and the society is further constructed in the interests of the few against the wellbeing of the majority.