Justice for all, except… not really

For this Further Reading I’m going to be looking at a book and an extensive study by the National Academy of Sciences, both concerned with the Justice domain of the Interlock.

The book is Dorm Room Dealers, by A. Rafik Mohamed and Erik D. Fritsvold.  Its subject is, as you might guess from the title, drug dealing on university campuses.  The authors spent six years interviewing and observing students at a private university in southern California who were part of the drug culture there, focusing on around fifty dealers over the course of the study.

The purpose of the book is to delve into the anthropology of these dorm-room dealers, looking at their backgrounds, their reasons for dealing in illegal drugs, the ways in which they conduct themselves in the process of dealing and in their social interactions, and where they ended up after graduation.  The authors also looked closely at the responses that authority figures had to these activities, and how their dealer subjects handled the implications of dealing in illegal substances.  The picture that the authors paint is a fascinating one because it is, in many ways, the polar opposite of a stereotypical drug dealer community.

For the most part, these dealers don’t sell drugs primarily for the money.  Most of them are from wealthy families, with sufficient allowances to live quite comfortably.  Instead, they’ve taken up drug dealing to improve their station in social hierarchies.  They sell only to friends and those their friends vouch for, instead of the open-door salesman approach associated with street dealers.  This is, however, pretty much their only form of security: compared to street dealers, who often go to extreme lengths to hide their activities and protect themselves from arrest and prosecution, these student dealers take few (if any) precautions and are almost flagrant about what they’re doing, depending almost entirely on law enforcement to turn a blind eye to their activities.

There are a great many more details and fascinating stories in the book, but the essence of it is a description of young college students engaging in illegal and lucrative activities for the purpose of elevating their status within their peer group and generating cash for recreational use.  They do so with little or no regard for the consequences, because the odds of being caught and actually punished are practically non-existent.  The whole book serves to highlight one of the veins of corruption running through America’s justice system: the markedly unequal application of criminal law to members of different classes and races.  This is the reason for this post’s title, “Justice for all, except… not really”:  Our justice system has evolved into a form that, in effect if not by intent, actively works against the people at the bottom of the ladder in American society.

Justice for some, repression for the rest

Dorm Room Dealers catalogues how the well-off don’t have to worry about being caught with a bag (or a whole drawer-full) of weed or cocaine because the authorities prefer not to look too closely at their activities.  This is not necessarily bad, although lack of enforcement points to either corruption of law-enforcement or a law that is in need of re-thinking.  But the other side of the coin is that the police have become relentless about enforcing these same drug laws in lower-class neighborhoods, applying an entirely different attitude and perspective to street dealers than to dorm room dealers, despite a remarkably small difference in the illegal activity that each kind of dealer performs.

Mohamed and Fritsvold discuss this comparison, but it’s not their primary focus.  A much deeper analysis of the issue can be found in a new report by the National Academy of Sciences, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States.  It’s a goldmine of information on a number of the issues that are tangled together in the Justice domain; it’s 357 pages long, and I’m still sifting through it, but I already know that I will be referring to it frequently when I discuss the justice system.

One of the most important parts of the NAS report, the part that I think everyone should read if they really want to understand what’s wrong with the justice system and how to fix it, is Chapter Four of the report, on the underlying causes of rising incarceration.  This is a short history of the war on crime and the war on drugs, and it serves to illustrate both how far we as a society have come since the 60s and how badly we’ve hamstrung ourselves by continuing to enforce laws that were passed decades ago to deal with generation-specific problems.

One of the most prominent themes running through the chapter is the importance of racial tensions in the growth of the current justice system.  Even once the civil rights movement had succeeded in keeping outright racist ideologies out of political platforms, politicians continued to use race-specific issues and enforcement to pander to white voters who were angry about the changes they were seeing in American society.

Which brings us back to the theme for this post: unequal application of justice, based on class and race.  A small amount of class bias in law-enforcement seems inevitable as long as poor communities have higher crime rates.  Police and prosecutors are only human, and it is human nature to judge groups of people based on previous experience.  But most educated, thoughtful Americans have no idea of how unequal justice has become in the US.

The NAS report points out that the US prison population has soared, that it is far out of line with both the rest of the world and with the US’s own history, and that the laws contributing most to the current prison problem and the overall corruption of the justice system were passed in a political climate in which the public greatly overestimated both the crime rate and the effectiveness of imprisonment as a way to prevent crime.  Between media sensationalism and politicians exaggerating the dangers of crime, the public as a whole became convinced that a tidal wave of violent crime threatened to engulf the country, and that we were all in constant danger, whether in our homes or out on the streets.

This was never true, even at the height of the crime peak in the seventies and eighties, and it is far less so now.  Violent crime has been declining for years and is now at a near-record low, in spite of markedly better data collection.  For most middle class and upper class Americans, the risk of being the victim of a violent attack by an outsider – someone from a different race, community, or economic class – is very small, yet Americans continue to believe the risk is high, and continue to barricade themselves into armed and fortified communities.

This environment, in which the public has a hugely exaggerated fear of attacks by outsiders, leads voters to approve draconian laws against drugs and other offenses.  The unstated targets of those fears are people who are “not like us”:  poor people, minorities, and supposedly-drug-crazed homicidal maniacs.  And this makes sense of the selective enforcement of things like the drug laws.  The dorm-room dealers are “people like us.”  The laws aren’t meant to target them, and the police and prosecutors understand all too clearly that enforcing these laws against the wrong people would not be tolerated.

But this just underscores what everyone knew, but no one stated out loud, when politicians repeatedly imposed higher penalties on drug possession than on rape and murder, and passed laws mandating longer and longer sentences for a variety of minor crimes:  these laws were always intended to be tools of selective enforcement, to be used only against poor people, minorities, and other outsiders.

As a short-term response to scary crime statistics, it’s tempting to go for the quick answer:  crack down hard on the “criminal classes,” lock as many of them up as possible, and throw away the key.  As a long-term strategy, as the NAS report makes clear, this is a disaster.  As more and more people enter the prison system, and fewer and fewer leave it, the prison population explodes, as does the cost to the public.  And, in the meantime, the damage to public trust in a nation founded on the principal of “Equal justice before the law” has been profound.

I highly recommend both books.  Dorm Room Dealers is moderate-sized and very readable.  The NAS report is twice the length and considerably less readable, but the summary at the beginning of the pdf can be downloaded separately.  It is only 12 pages long and is well worth the effort if you don’t have the time for the whole thing.


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