Predatory Criminal Justice

Community Organizing Mass Incarceration

  New Orleans      When you subscribe to Sciencemagazine, you expect to be able to try and keep up a bit with new discoveries at the frontier of experimentation and exploration.  If you’re like me, you hope to be able to sit at the back of the classroom, keep quiet, and learn something about things that aren’t usually part of your daily life and usual mental gymnastics.  Every once in a while, one of their articles cruises right up my lane though, since political science even calls itself a science and sociology lines up right alongside as well.

A recent issue focused on criminal justice for example.  Most of us in the post-Floyd era are constantly fighting against becoming almost inured to tales of the constant horrors of our carceral system and all of its manifestations of systemic racism and pervasive rot in our society.  Having fought for decades against predatory banking and lending schemes, one piece stood out for me, entitled “The Predatory Dimensions of Criminal Justice.”  The authors, Professors Joshua Page and Joe Soss, see the costs imposed by courts, jailers, prosecutors, and the police as the prime examples of what they term “racial capitalism”, where neo-liberal capitalism becomes entwined with practices of racial domination.

One of their graphics is a classic example of how a picture is worth a thousand words.  They look at a court in Pittsburgh’s Allegany County where an individual pleaded guilty to stealing $121 worth of stuff from a store.  He was required to make restitution of the $121, which seems fair, but before he could settle the matter, another $1500 and change was larded onto the bill.  Every piece of the so-called criminal justice system wanted to be paid, before this poor sucker could claim, lesson-learned, free again.  There were big-ticket items.  The police took $200 for booking him.  The county and state of Pennsylvania took another $270 a piece for “supervising” him after he was released, which is likely a euphemism for making sure everyone got paid.  In fact, record keeping got another $200 and probation and parole got $240.  After the big items, every part of this predatory system nickels and dimes him for something.  The DA and the AG each want a couple of bucks for their salary and office.  The law library wants $7. Records comes in for another five-and-a-half bucks.  The cops get a fiver for firearm training and education.  The list goes on and on.  Every part of the system sees a mark and wants a slice.  What the hell!

It’s not just Pennsylvania.  It’s everywhere.  Remember how many people Florida continued to be kept off the voting rolls there until they pay the same mountain of extraneous fees.  Excuses and rationalizations for this outrage pile up even higher than the bills.  States and counties are not getting money from the feds that they once had so they had to find money somewhere, they say.  Voters don’t want to pay more for all of this so, why not the perpetrator, goes their reasoning?

One thing we demanded in all negotiations with predatory companies, and that we have won in some cases and countries around payday lending, is that these schemes have to include an evaluation of “ability to pay.”  That’s not happening in this injustice system, making it “cruel and unusual punishment” in my book.  We can ban the box in many cities that prevent people from getting jobs after run-ins with the law, but if we leave the same people strapped with predatory debt, we’re keeping people caged without a way to break out of this permanently punitive system.