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The Real War on Crime: The Report of the National Criminal Justice Commission (Book Review)

by Steven R. Donziger, Editor Harper Perennial, 1996, $15.00

by Daniel Burton-Rose

The Tough-On-Crime Myth: Real Solutions to Cut Crime, by Peter T. Elikann Insight Books, 1996, $24.95

The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class and Criminal Justice , by Jeffrey Reiman, Allyn and Bacon, 1998, 5th ed.

American penal reform movements have a long and distinguished history: that of middle-class activists working to check the excesses of the centralized state against the underclass. Some of the reformers had good hearts, some didn't. Either way, they're responsible for many of the most hellish elements of incarceration, from the penitentiary itself and solitary confinement to parole and the indeterminate sentence. It's not unduly cynical to say that reformists' efforts to put a less blatantly oppressive face on the social structure have served to deflate efforts
against that social structure. This ensures that reformers maintain their cushy place in the hierarchy and feel good about themselves in the process.

The Real War on Crime and The Tough-On-Crime Myth fit solidly in this
reformist tradition. The Real War on Crime is the product of thirty-four
generally progressive folks with experience around criminal justice issues, formed into "The National Criminal Justice Commission." Most of the Commission's offerings' are useful. They deflate misleading statistics (though they aren't immune from uncritically using some misleading statistics themselves, such as in regards to what constitutes
"the violent offender"); speak out against mandatory minimums; point out the ways in which race effects every stage of the criminal justice system, leading to terribly skewed minority representation in prisons (though this process is described with much more strength and passion in Commission member Jerome Miller's Search and Destroy: African-American Males in the Criminal Justice System ); describe the way in which the
media whips up fear of crime, creating a political climate where vindictive soundbites are the rule in criminal justice discourse; and identify the prison-industrial complex as a driving force behind mass imprisonment.
But the book is skewed by class bias. It is obviously addressed to the middle class and uses utilitarian arguments to make its case. The human devastation our current prison policies wreak are discussed, but the gist of the Commission's argument is always pecuniary: prisons are inefficient and overly-expensive for the goal they aim to achieve ("public safety" in the Commission members' minds).

The Commission members say the current prison system "does not work."
But everything works, or else it wouldn't exist. The Commission simply doesn't ask who it works for.

A lamer book which covers much of the same material (and indeed which
contains many of the same examples and case studies) is Peter Elikann's The Tough-On-Crime Myth . Elikann's redundant work is based almost entirely on mainstream media articles and the studies which were cited in those articles. Many of his statistics are bunk, the sort of crude manipulations The Real War on Crime denounced. Elikann, a defense
lawyer, corporate journalist and criminal justice pundit, also uses many
long quotes about the criminal justice system from people he's defended.
Elikann's treatment of the War on Crime is representative of his approach throughout the book. Elikann feels the drug war strategy "sounded good in theory" and was "well-intentioned," and, after falsely making decriminalization and legalization of drugs synonymous, comes out against the latter while obscuring the aims of proponents of the former. He calls for the "dejailification" of nonviolent offenders, and the treatment of drug problems more like a health problem (i.e., what proponents of decriminalization stand for, but Elikann's version endorses expanded police powers).

The gist of these two books is that it is both unnecessary and too expensive to lock up the sheer volume of nonviolent offenders that the U.S. currently does. Instead, they feel, those prison cells should reserved for violent offenders (who it's okay to abandon to lives in cages). The real tragedy in imprisoning a nonviolent offender at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars a year, is, as Elikann states, that "We could pay for a police officer or teacher for that price." Elikann seems to favor the former. Because the U.S. has been building too many
prisons, among other things " [police] equipment has gone unbought, newer high-technology procedures have gone unimplemented, and crime-stopping programs have not begun."

Much of the power of the prison movement in the early `70s was that its
members questioned the fundamental premises behind imprisonment, and had
a real understanding of the role prisons play in our society. The Commission and Elikann don't have this same critical bent. Not surprisingly, then, their work perpetuates the status quo. In so doing
they do their part to make sure...

The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison . Jeffrey Reiman's book is
an excellent antidote to The Real War on Crime and The Tough on Crime
Myth . First published in 1979 and now in its fifth revised edition, The
Rich Get Richer is a classic attempt to tear-down the socially-constructed barriers that obscure the class bias in the U.S. criminal justice system.

Reiman starts from the eminently reasonable query "Why aren't all human
acts that hurt others punished equally as crimes?" He examines corporate crime, for example, finding that almost twice as many people are killed each year by preventable accidents or illnesses which take place on the job than are killed by "violent crime" as defined by the mass media. Concrete decisions are made which result in those deaths-all having to do with the bottom line-though those who make those decisions are rarely
punished as criminals.

But Reiman doesn't simply lament class-exemptions for punishments, or,
buying into what political scientist Noam Chomsky has called "the assumed beneficence of the state," state simple-mindedly that "prisons are a failure." Instead, he looks at what functions prisons serve in our society and who this benefits. By only punishing individual violent crimes and individual property crimes, the criminal justice system works
to make the poor seem scary and violent. "The value of this to those in
positions of power ," he writes, "is that it deflects the discontent and potential hostility of Middle America away from the classes above them and toward the classes below them." ( emphasis in original .) This creates a distorted image of what hurts people, and in so doing allows people to keep getting hurt. To continue this process, the media endlessly feeds back images of the poor as criminally violent.

Reiman calls this process the "Pyrric defeat" theory: instead of the
"Pyrric victory," in which one ostensibly wins though at great costs, with the Pyrric defeat one keeps losing, but in the loss finds enough benefit to actually be winning. "The failure of the criminal justice system yields such benefits to those in positions of power that it
amounts to success," Reiman writes.

Reiman's recommendations for partial remedy include: confronting poverty as a source of crime; making punishments fit crimes (i.e., doing away with class-exemptions for punishments); treating addiction as a medical problem and legalizing most drugs; implementing correctional programs "that promote rather than undermine personal responsibility"; and limiting the discretion of all actors in the criminal justice system, while expanding their responsibility to justify their decisions. These recommendations are far-reaching, and would bring about real and positive change.

To order T he Tough-On-Crime Myth, send $25.95 to Insight Books, 233
Spring St., New York, NY 10013-1578. (212) 620-8460. To order: The Rich
Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison , send $24 to Allyn and Bacon, PO Box
10695, Des Moines, IA 50336-0695. 1-800 666-9433

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