Reflections on The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison
While the title of this book suggests 250 pages of how the rich are conspiring to keep the poor, poor and send them to prison, in actuality it is a well-researched look at the criminal justice system through the lenses of class, race, social theory, and ideology. Reiman’s (2007) main thesis is that “the goal of our criminal justice system is not to eliminate crime or achieve justice, but to project to the American public a visible image of the threat of crime as a threat from the poor” (p. 1). He goes further by stating that the criminal justice system is designed to fail, but designed to fail in a way that benefits the rich “while making it look as if serious crime and thus the real danger to society are the work of the poor” (p. 5). The existing social and economic orders are responsible for the image of the criminal poor. Reiman is quick to emphasize that he is not advocating for the elimination of the criminal justice system, nor is he suggesting that because society plays an essential role in producing crime that those who commit crimes should not be held accountable. His aim is to highlight the different social and ideological realities in the U.S. that contribute to the crime problem, and that help sustain a failing criminal justice system.
There is a great deal of pertinent information to be considered in this book, but one section that stood out to me was Reiman’s discussion on how we define crime and whether or not the criminal justice system protects society from the most real and prevalent dangers. He writes:
The criminal justice system does not protect us against the gravest threats to life, limb, and possessions. Its definitions of crime are not simply a reflection of the objective dangers that threaten us. The workplace, the medical profession, the air we breathe, and the poverty we refuse to rectify lead to far more human suffering, result in far more death and disability, and take far more dollars from our pockets than murders, aggravated assaults, and thefts reported annually by the FBI. What is more, this human suffering is preventable. (p. 101)
Reiman suggests that there is a typical crime and a typical criminal, which have been etched into the brains of most Americans by how our society defines criminal acts, by the mass media, and by who’s in our prisons. When most people think of crime they think of a one on one interaction where one person is attacking the other person. The attacker is usually young, male, poor, and most likely black. Being robbed of life, limb, or property is perceived to be the most dangerous threat, when in reality more Americans die from occupational injury or disease (54,928 deaths in 2003) than from crime related incidents (8,250 deaths in 2003) (p. 85). The dangerous actions, or lack of actions, of the upper and middle class are not considered criminal acts even though those actions are a greater threat to Americans, cause greater harm, and cost more money than what we define as criminal acts.
Another discussion that stood out to me was Reiman’s explanation of how the failing criminal justice system benefits the rich and therefore maintains the status quo. Reiman identifies three areas in which the system fails:
First, there is the failure to implement policies that stand a good chance of reducing crime and the harm it causes. Second, there is a failure to identify as crimes the harmful acts of the rich and powerful. Third, there is the failure to eliminate economic bias in the criminal justice system, so that the poor continue to have a substantially greater chance than better-off people of being arrested, charged, convicted, and penalized for committing the acts that are treated as crimes. (p. 168)
These three failures redirect our attention away from the well off to the poor, who are seen as the real threat to society. Additionally, those who have the power to change the system (the well off), have no inclination to do so because they are not directly harmed by the failures. It is the poor who suffer most from the failures; they are the ones in prison, and they are almost three times more likely to be victimized than individuals with middle class incomes.
Another feature of the criminal justice system that benefits the wealthy is the focus on the individual criminal and not the social and economic order, which the criminal is a product of. We assume that an individual who has committed a criminal act has failed society. We do not, however, ask if society has failed the individual. Reiman writes, “Thus, the criminal justice system focuses moral condemnation on the individuals and deflects it away from the social order that may have either violated the individual’s rights or dignity or pushed him or her to the brink of crime” (p. 177). Crime can be considered a product of our modern capitalist, industrialized society. The message to all Americans is that everyone can succeed with hard work and perseverance. The distribution of wealth creates competition, but the avenues of success are not open to everyone. Thus, those who are poor are deemed lazy, and those who benefit from the system don’t have to feel morally obligated to those who cannot make a living. The structure of our society produces crime, and relieves the well off from responsibility to that crime.
Reiman, J. (2007). The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice (8th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.