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The Criminal Type
What do you think of when someone talks to you about the 'criminal type'? Is there a specific 'type' of person that can be construed 'criminal?' According to Jessica Mitford, "Americans are preoccupied with crimes of the poor and as such the 'criminal type' has surfaced in American consciousness as a social creation." This paper is going to examine the concept of 'criminal types' and argues that anybody has the potential to be a criminal under certain definitions. We will also examine the concept of 'American Bias' towards certain racial and socio-economic groups within the American justice system.
The word 'criminal' according to the Oxford Modern English Dictionary (1996) is "a person who has committed a crime." A crime, in the same dictionary is defined as, "a serious offence punishable by law" (Oxford, 1996). So it would be safe to assume from these definitions that a criminal is a person who does something that is punishable according to the laws of their geographical region.
The obvious example that shows a historical precedent for bias within the American justice system, and that basically anybody has the potential to be a criminal, is the great civic rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jnr.
King was jailed for his participation in a 'non-violent' assembly in Birmingham in the early 1960's and his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is one of the most beautifully written documents in American History. When we talk about the deeds of Martin Luther King in a present day context, we tend to overlook the fact that at one time he was considered a criminal, despite the fact he was obviously well educated and good and decent man. Ironically enough in the third paragraph of his letter he states, "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here." One would assume, if they did not know the story of Martin Luther King, that he himself was the 'criminal' in this situation, and indeed under law, those people would have made the right deduction. Yet when we read his letter and understand the story behind his incarceration, we have to wonder, who were the criminals in this case? Martin Luther King, because he was in prison, or the laws and lawmakers that put him there?
In King's letter he talks about the concept of just and unjust laws. He says,
An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey, but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal." (King, 1963)
Another reason why King thought the laws that made him a criminal were unjust was because he felt that laws should only be binding on those people who voted for them or had an active part in their decision process. At the time of King's incarceration, Black people were not allowed to vote, so had no input in the lawmaking process, and yet were forced to abide by the laws. King was arrested for parading without a permit. He claimed in his letter that there was nothing wrong with having a law requiring a permit for a parade, but he felt the law became unjust in the fact that it was used to maintain segregation, and therefore denied the protestors the right (which is granted under the Constitution's First Amendment) to peaceful assembly and protest.
His actions made him a criminal.
Jessica Mitford's paper "The Criminal Type," gives us another example where the concept of criminal type and bias within the justice system is clearly apparent. She mentions a tale about a group of high school seniors (from a upper-middle class background) who had gone on a general rampage that included arson, vandalism, breaking and entering, assault, car theft and rape. In my mind these would be considered criminal acts and as such the people who did them should be deemed 'criminal' and punished by law. However, after discussions between prosecutors, lawyers and the youth's parents, the prosecutors decided that 'nor formal action should be taken against the miscreants." And they were all released into the care of their families who promised to administer appropriate discipline. This tale in itself makes the idea of the same type of justice for all a travesty. But to make the example even clearer in the reader's mind Mitford went on to mention that in the same week, in the same township, a nine-year-old black ghetto-dweller was arrested and charged for stealing a nickel from his white classmate. He was charged with 'extortion and robbery' and sentenced to Juvenile Hall for 6 weeks to await his court hearing despite him having a very supportive (and upset) mother. When confronted with this type of example that is played out in the American Justice system even today it is easy to agree with Mitford's contention that the criminal type is a social creation.
Personally my own impression of a 'criminal type' does not have a specific race, gender, age or socio-economic group. I watch enough on the news to realize that in certain parts of America (like New York) it does not pay to be a young black male, because you can be picked up just for walking the streets after dark. The fact that you might have just finished work would be totally irrelevant to the Policemen who had arrested you. Women are as capable of committing crimes as men according to statistics, as are young people and now even children. It has always been my contention that dependent on circumstance anyone of us could become a criminal; it is just the types of crimes that different genders and ages commit, to the traditional norms. For example according to the "Women in Prison Fact Sheet" the number of women entering prisons in the United States has increased by 40% since 1980, which is double the increase of men. Although they currently only make up 5% of the New York's total state prison numbers, (2000) the number is steadily rising. However according to the same fact sheet 70% of the women incarcerated were charged with nonviolent or non-coercive crimes.
The number of children in the Justice system is rising as well, and a lot of this is attributable to children who are either homeless or come from single parent households. It is a shame that such fact sheets as the "Juvenile Justice Project Fact Sheet" will clearly indicate statistics such as "68% of the children sent to OCFS come from households in which either one or both parents are absent." Obviously the OCFS cannot be doing much in the way of rehabilitative studies because this same fact sheet states that 81% of boys and 45% of girls that were released from OCFS custody were rearrested within 36 months.
So we have criminals of all ages, races and genders. The only 'majority statistic' from any of the research is the socio-economic factor. All the statistics show high incidences of criminal activity from those in lower socio-economic groups - poor people in other words. But is that because poor people are bad, or maybe they are just perceived so because they steal to eat, or are found loitering on the streets because they can not afford a home, or are simply picked up because they are trying to work all the hours they can to make a living? This American bias in the justice system is not against race, gender or age, it is against poor people.
The issue of what age a person should be tried as an adult is an interesting concept. One would assume that if a person, regardless of…[continue]
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