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May 19, 2010

"I'm a criminal and so are you"

The title of this post is the headline of this terrific new commentary on CNN.com from my Moritz College of Law colleague Michelle Alexander. Here is part of the editorial set-up for the piece and some snippets of the piece itself:

Editor's note: America's 300 million-plus people are declaring their identity in the 2010 Census this year. This piece is part of a special series on CNN.com in which people describe how they see their own identity.  Michelle Alexander is the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010). She is the former director of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Northern California and of the Civil Rights Clinic at Stanford Law School. She holds a joint appointment with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University.

Who am I?  How do I identify?

Lately, I've been telling people that I'm a criminal.  This shocks most people, since I don't "look like" one.  I'm a fairly clean-cut, light-skinned black woman with fancy degrees from Vanderbilt University and Stanford Law School.  I'm a law professor and I once clerked for a U.S. Supreme Court Justice -- not the sort of thing you'd expect a criminal to do.

What'd you get convicted of? people ask.  Nothing, I say.  Well, then why do you say you're a criminal?  Because I am a criminal, I say, just like you.  This is where the conversation gets interesting.

Most of my acquaintances don't think of themselves as criminals.  No matter what their color, age or gender, most of the people in my neighborhood and in my workplace seem to think criminals exist somewhere else -- in ghettos, mainly.

They have an unspoken, but deeply rooted identity as "law-abiding citizens."  I ask them, "Haven't you ever committed a crime?"  Oddly, people often seem perplexed by this question. What do you mean? they say.  I mean, haven't you ever smoked pot, didn't you ever drink underage, don't you sometimes speed on the freeway, haven't you gotten behind the wheel after having a couple of drinks?  Haven't you broken the law? 

Well, yeah, they say, but I'm not a criminal.  Oh, really?  What are you, then?  As I see it, you're just somebody who hasn't been caught.  You're still a criminal, no better than many of those who've been branded felons for life. 

Perhaps there should be a box on the census form that says "I'm a criminal."  Everyone who has ever committed a crime would be required to check it.  If everyone were forced to acknowledge their own criminality, maybe we, as a nation, would second-guess our apparent zeal for denying full citizenship to those branded felons.

In this country, we force millions of people -- who are largely black and brown -- into a permanent second-class status, simply because they once committed a crime.  Once labeled a felon, you are ushered into a parallel social universe.  You can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits -- forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind.  This kind of stigma, discrimination and social exclusion may befall you for no reason other than you were once caught with drugs.

I doubt Barack Obama thinks of himself as a criminal, though he should.  He has admitted to using illegal drugs during his college years -- lots, in fact.  What if he thought of himself as a criminal?  What if he identified that way?  Would it lead him to feel a bit more compassion for those who are branded drug felons for life, unable to find work or housing, and deemed ineligible even for food stamps? 

Maybe if Obama thought of himself as a criminal he wouldn't have just endorsed spending even more money on prisons at a time when scarce resources would be much better spent on education or health care, or just about anything else.

As regular readers know, one needs also to add permanent denial of the Second Amendment right to armed self-defense in the home to the list of forms of discrimination that all felons now experience under current federal laws. 

May 19, 2010 at 06:04 PM | Permalink

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Comments

"In this country, we force millions of people -- who are largely black and brown -- into a permanent second-class status, simply because they once committed a crime."

Everything Ms. Alexander says is true and there is little to disagree with. Well, almost. While the statement above is true beyond doubt there is a much better way that she could have made her point. The sentence could/should have simply said; In this country, we force millions of people into a permanent second-class status, simply because they once committed a crime. Then the follow up, "Once labeled a felon, you are ushered into a parallel social universe." This is not an issue of racism, sexism, or any other 'ism it is a matter of people, all people being treated unjustly.

The fact that more people of color are victims of the broken system is beyond argument but so what? Wrong is wrong and the numbers don't mean squat. If someone is condemned to a life sentence despite having completed all court ordered punishment it matters little what color they are. It only matters that they and their families are forced to suffer what amounts to a civil death sentence for no good purpose.

Posted by: Anon | May 19, 2010 7:00:36 PM

So we should let all criminals get second chances. Does that include violent bank robbers, rapists, criminals. People who con innocent people out of there life savings. We should let these people vote, own guns, and allow them to go unpunished.
At one level yes, we have all broken the law. That does not make someone a criminal as I would understand the term. Someone who drinks underage is not in the same league as a bank robber or murder and that is where her argument breaks down.

Posted by: jim | May 19, 2010 7:56:57 PM

"That does not make someone a criminal as I would understand the term. Someone who drinks underage is not in the same league as a bank robber or murder and that is where her argument breaks down."

Nope, that is where your argument breaks down and she is right on the mark. Under current law, a felon is a felon is a felon. Martha Stewart, Charles Manson, all the same as far as collateral consequences. No one advocating reform is saying "let all criminals get second chances." But if you consider someone like Martha to be a threat to society or someone who must be prohibited from firearms ownership then, my friend, you have a serious problem.

Posted by: Anon | May 19, 2010 10:26:45 PM

"No one advocating reform is saying "let all criminals get second chances."
You make a valid point except for this one (and the unnecessary personal comment). She IS advocating that all criminals should get second chances when she describes everyone is a criminal. She is lumping all criminals as the same and they should all get a second chance.

Posted by: jim | May 19, 2010 10:44:01 PM

This is the business model of the Inquisition. An infinite number of rules made everyone a malfeasor. The Inquisitors then chose the well to do, tried them for blaspheming by eating meat on Friday, then offered a generous plea bargain. We confiscate your assets, you avoid the stake. It lasted hundreds of years until the French beheaded or expelled 10,000 priests. The lawyer picked up this business for nothing, and has run it well for the past 200 years.

I suggest a French style correction.

The indoctrination of the dumbasses here has been so good, they butt right up against the truth, but can never quite see the nature of the oppressor. Sweetie, who wrote the laws that everyone has violated because they are ridiculous? Come on, dumbass, say it. The lawyer hierarchy. Very good. Was it that painful to utter?

Now, hire a convict to mop the floors. Never mind for any responsible position or one with contact with people. Someone slips on a wet floor. Now, you are not only defending the tort, you have to defend the hiring. The lawyer will get you coming and going. Sue for discrimination for not hiring a convict. Then sue for negligent hiring a convict.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 19, 2010 11:34:50 PM

The concept of redemption has been squeezed out of our criminal justice system. Lately I've been contemplating the case of Leopold and Lobe. We now have non-violent marijuana only drug offenders in prison for life without parole. Something has changed in the last 40 years. Michelle Alexander gives another way to think about it, and we should try to understand how we've changed and what we have become.

Posted by: beth | May 19, 2010 11:37:29 PM

I was recently turned down by a major super market chain in NC a for part time job picking and receiving groceries at a distribution center . I currently have and had jobs in the past where I have held positions of trust. The reason given.... that I have a marijuana possession charge back from 1986 (misdemeanor).I guess I will always be one of those labeled people also.

Posted by: Anon | May 19, 2010 11:42:42 PM

"I mean, haven't you ever smoked pot, didn't you ever drink underage, don't you sometimes speed on the freeway, haven't you gotten behind the wheel after having a couple of drinks? Haven't you broken the law?

"Well, yeah, they say, but I'm not a criminal. Oh, really? What are you, then? As I see it, you're just somebody who hasn't been caught. You're still a criminal, NO BETTER THAN MANY OF THOSE WHO'VE BEEN BRANDED FELONS FOR LIFE." (emaphasis added).

The idea that a person who smoked pot in college, or did underage drinking, or speeds occasionally on the freeway is "no better" than the sort of person a normal citizen views as a criminal is beyond preposterous. Only in the mind of a zealot is there no distinction between (1) those who, with bad intent, indulge themselves in cheating, stealing, dangerous drugs, mugging, yoking, rape and other forms of malicious anti-social conduct, and (2) those who don't.

The author is trying to show that behavior has zip to do with whether you wind up with a felony conviction; it's just race and color. Everybody (or at least every white person) is a bigot, except the benighted of the ACLU, and -- while we're at it -- everybody is not merely criminal, but EQUALLY criminal.

What unadulterated tripe. Any defendant who wants to show that he is being charged because of race or color instead of behavior is welcome to file a motion. In the 18 years I was an AUSA in the suburbs of Washington DC, few such motions were filed and not one succeeded. We convicted many more whites than blacks, but I didn't keep count because I didn't care. Neither did my colleagues. It's quite accurate to say you didn't get charged unless you got caught, but that is a truism, not a scandal.

This article is the on-steroids version of the defense lawyer's typical stunt to try to show that it's everybody's fault but his client's. The way the author tries to bring it off is by peddling the notion that, by golly, THERE JUST AIN'T NO WAY TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE between a 19 year-old puffing a joint and a 34 year-old knocking over the liquor store or selling meth or swindling a widow out of her life savings.

Earth to ACLU: There is plenty of way to tell, and normal people do it all the time. Those normal people include ESPECIALLY defense lawyers, who in my experience were able to smell out brilliantly whether they were dealing with a sleaze/thug or with someone who actually did act out of character.


Posted by: Bill Otis | May 19, 2010 11:53:23 PM

Michelle Alexander isn't talking about racism, though there of course some of that. She is talking about projection, probably the most substantiated psychological dynamic, which in turn suggests "the unexamined life is not worth living."

In Biblical terms, "You hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of your own eye; and then shall you see clearly to cast out the mote out of your brother's eye." That is a very difficult and recurring process.

Posted by: George | May 20, 2010 2:14:46 AM

Our resident torture cheerleader has again engaged in red-herring, hide-the-ball antics in order to screech his anti-defendant diatribe. The writer is not advocating for a "get out of jail free card" or a free pass to commit crimes. Rather, the writer is pointing out the very real problems of the collateral consequences and institutional discrimination that accompany being a person who formerly committed a felony. The writer correctly points out that our vengeance-seeking society continues to punish persons who have presumably paid their debt to society through various forms of after-the-fact discrimination of the types listed. The writer correctly points out that society does so because persons who formerly committed a felony are branded as the "other" or likewise dehumanized so that we can get further shots in at them. The writer goes on to show that everyone at one time or another has committed some type of crime--and therefore under our labeling society is therefore a "criminal." Of course, those whose existence relies (or did) on engorging off the public teat of the prison-industrial complex will obviously desire to propagate the drumbeat of fear-mongering hysteria of the criminal boogyman.

Posted by: Mark # 1 | May 20, 2010 11:29:53 AM

@Mark # 1 | May 20, 2010 11:29:53 AM

Atta boy Mark. You know old "Dodge & Duck" pretty well it seems. Your comments are on the mark no pun intended.

From another who also has old "Dodge & Duck" pretty well pegged, "I would expect someone who trades in distractions -- -- to continue with distractions."

Posted by: Anon | May 20, 2010 6:59:57 PM

" The writer correctly points out that our vengeance-seeking society continues to punish persons who have presumably paid their debt to society through various forms of after-the-fact discrimination of the types listed. The writer correctly points out that society does so because persons who formerly committed a felony are branded as the "other" or likewise dehumanized so that we can get further shots in at them. The writer goes on to show that everyone at one time or another has committed some type of crime--and therefore under our labeling society is therefore a "criminal." "
I disagree with what she is saying. There are some criminals who should not be given a second chance. They should be locked up and treated like criminals for the rest of their lives.
When the writer says, 'everyone is a criminal,' she is not only ignoring this fact, she attempts to lump all criminals together when that is not the case. Some crimes are minor, some are major. Not all criminals should be treated the same.
The writer, by lumping all criminals together, is implying that all criminals should get a second chance, which is nonsense. And I would still argue that she is saying that criminals should not be punished.

Posted by: Jim | May 20, 2010 11:24:38 PM

The vast majority of the population do not have criminal histories. Those that do are at a disadvantage because criminal histories are more accessible and many of the people that use them don't understand criminal severity classes. It is not easy to understand severity classes because they differ from state to state and furthermore one of the consequences of "Tough on Crime" is that some misdemeanors have been enhanced to felonies.

This discussion reminds me of the control model in that all persons have criminal tendencies but some are better able to control those tendencies than others. It turns the discussion of crime causation upside down.

Posted by: John Neff | May 21, 2010 8:55:52 AM

Thanks for the information.


Jane Linn
Contributing Editor
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Posted by: Jane Lin | May 23, 2010 11:12:49 AM

I agree, with you that criminals should receive a second chance. The crime rate is increasing because criminals are not giving a chance to earn a living. A person will not understand until it happens near to the heart with a child,family,or friend. As a ex-offender we have paid our debt to society, when we paid fines, did our sentence. We still should be able to work and earn a living. What is the government trying to prove by not letting ex-offenders work. Even as an Ex-offender you still have to eat in order to survive. Some ex-offenders has families and cannot take care of home because of mistake that is dictating their Life. I am now in college earning a degree, so I can provide for my children. I made a mistake;now, I am paying for my bad choice and my innocent children are also. If society DO NOT want to give ex-offfenders a oppourtunity to Live Life than at least let them get disability, because society, the government, and employers is making us disable. Before someone judge a person because of their conviction, maybe they should ask what happen. What lesson did they learn? If they could change the past would they? Ex- offenders is someone that has serve their time and would like to move forward in life and Live. Ex-offenders has learned from their mistake and would like a second chance at Life. I am speaking as an Ex-offenders, who has not receive so much as a traffic ticket in 5 years and CANNOT FIND EMPLOYMENT. I quess society feels because of my past mistake, I should live off of welfare and let the government take care of my family. Majority of the crimes are committed are because people are searching for a way out, with nowhere to turn; in result, they return to selling drugs, robbing, and prostituting, so they can survive. Crime rate will continue to increase until something is done. Not to mention this effects African Americans and Hispanics, maybe this is why society, government, and employers dont care.

Posted by: criminal justice student | Jun 14, 2010 11:20:23 AM

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