Criminalization of America’s Poor and Minorities on Trivial Beefs

9780226136714Vancouver       Over the last couple of days while traveling about I read on my Kindle a new book called, On the Run:  Fugitive Life in an American City, by budding sociologist, Alice Goffman, about a 6-year period of observation of a changing neighborhood in Philadelphia.  As the title makes clear the criminalization of this lower income, African-American neighborhood affecting men, women, the “clean” and “dirty,” as defined by their status with the police and courts, was pervasive.  Goffman argues that for many it was redefining their entire culture, social relationships, and future.

As a sidebar, having spent a good deal of time in Philly, over the years, it was fascinating to learn the argot of those streets where a “whip” is a car, an “elbow” is a driver’s license, an “AP” is an apartment, and so on.  And, not just in Philly but throughout urban America, her chapters on what constituted a “rider” and even more so a “hard rider,” women and men who would stick with someone on the run from the police even in the face of amazing pressure, brutality, and even the chance of their own arrest, was vivid.  The famous song from more than a dozen years ago about looking for a “ride and die” chick is a footnote in how long this criminalization of urban neighborhoods has been dominant.

Past the point where inevitably the reader will measure whether they in fact live with “riders,” which luckily I am absolutely sure of in my case, perhaps the most shocking overlay of this criminalization of our urban poor and minority communities is how trivial many of the so-called crimes are that are landing young men back in jail over and over again.  An overwhelming number of the beefs were for parole violations, many of them frankly ridiculously minor, like breaking curfew, having a drink, or driving a car.  Young people anywhere and everywhere are going to do those kinds of things just as part of L.I.F.E., but in these neighborhoods that gets you a back-to-jail card for months if not years.  Any experience in the criminal courts system also impresses how much the slightest trace of marijuana gets an arrest and puts you on the run as well, emphasizing even more how critical it is for our cities that there starts to be a movement for decriminalization and an end to mandatory sentencing.

As shocking though, were how many of the arrests and warrants were all about converting jails into the poor houses that we fought so hard to eliminate.   Time after time, in Goffman’s book the sword over a young man’s head was the problem of not having paid a court fine or some mandatory cost connected to the probation or parole.  With no jobs and no money, these chickenstuff fines of $50 here, $100 there, with interest and penalties building up were simply predatory and almost pushing people without income or jobs to have to go south on the law in order to satisfy the law.  People are being arrested for being poor.  An editorial in the New York Times, makes me think that perhaps they were reading Goffman’s book as well.  I hope so!

This same criminalization is what we are seeing in the deportation of immigrants where many of the so-called crimes that are being used to deport someone is the crime of having crossed the border illegally or attempting to live “on the run,” just as Goffman’s 6th street boys were doing.

This expensive, morally and political bankrupt process is a criminal injustice system tilted totally against the black, brown, and poor in our society.  We have to stop this.

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