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The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class and Criminal Justice
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.
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