Of all of the things that can be said about the criminal justice system in this country, one of the most honest and accurate criticisms that can be made against it is that it applies justice unfairly and inconsistently far too often. There are many factors that influence this unfortunate reality, including historically racist social attitudes and institutional functions that have disproportionately targeted minority groups throughout our country’s history. However, an often forgotten factor is the heavy interconnectivity between economic class and being both targeted by as well as most negatively affected by our criminal justice system. Living in severe poverty in essentially any part of the U.S. today almost guarantees one some interaction with law enforcement or some other aspect of that justice system. Data and research show that living in poverty also drastically increase the likelihood of one facing much more severe punishment for criminal behavior. To understand the reasons behind this, one must go no further than to examine how American society and its criminal justice system have been strategically designed for this outcome.
Disadvantage Breeding Poverty
Both criminal punishment and victimization work to create a system of disadvantage and in turn keep criminals and victims trapped in a cycle of poverty, primarily for the purpose of ensuring their future reentry into the criminal justice system. A felony conviction is perhaps the most noteworthy manner in which this is accomplished, as it renders individuals unable to acquire student financial aid, housing assistance, and a significant range of employment opportunities (Wheelock & Uggen, 2006, p. 2-3). The system of disadvantage created by experiencing the mechanisms of the American criminal justice system ensure that economic inequality remains intact through their economic oppression. To further that objective, Americans living in poverty are far more likely to be targeted by law enforcement efforts, which has been made a rather easy task as a result of residential segregation. Although the racial segregation of the better part of the 20th century has since been discontinued, residential segregation based on economic class remains alive and well and works to isolate low income communities. This system ultimately functions extraordinarily well at perpetuating poverty and involvement in the elements of the criminal justice system.
The Impact of Felony Convictions
While the most significant impacts of a felony conviction are experienced by the convicted individual, and include the aforementioned social and economic consequences, that impact extends further to also impact their families, peer groups, neighborhoods, and racial groups. Among families, children are particularly affected by their parents’ criminal records in various ways. Aside from sharing in the experience of economic difficulties, children of convicted felons are also more likely to experience behavioral problems, childhood illness, and both physical and mental health issues in their later adulthood (Covert, 2015). Peer groups and neighborhoods typically also suffer from increased attention by law enforcement and in turn the increased likelihood of being caught for criminal behavior. Similarly, those within the same racial group face prejudiced profiling and targeting by law enforcement and by society as a whole.
Disproportionate Incarceration Rates
Stemming from the United States’ immensely racist and overwhelmingly anti-black history, African-Americans still suffer the consequences of that past today. African-Americans are significantly more likely to live in poverty and face incarceration than whites, which demonstrates more so than anything else that the criminal justice system is functioning exactly as it has been designed to. This disproportionate targeting, prosecution and conviction is much less based on outright racism than it had been just a few decades ago, and is now much more so the byproduct of the economic inequality that still exists between the races. As African-Americans are more likely to be born and raised into poverty, they are far more likely to face introduction into criminal activity and in turn the consequences of the criminal justice system. The fact that criminal records and most notably felony convictions have a significant familial and communal impact as well only serves to further that notion.
Connecting Punishment & Economic Deprivation
A brief and basic analysis of criminal prosecution and sentencing practices between Americans of different races, occupations, and most importantly economic status demonstrates another disturbing reality of our criminal justice system. There is a very clear and unjust link between severity of sentencing depending on the presence of the aforementioned factors, evident in the fact that celebrities and other wealthy Americans are much less likely to face serious punishment for criminal behavior (Peyser, 2013). Punitive measures such as the imposition of fines also disproportionately impacts Americans based on their economic status, as a $100,000 fine may be considered nothing to a celebrity whereas it would be unimaginable to someone living under the poverty line. Unfortunately, success as a criminal defendant in avoiding harsh punishments or even avoiding punishment altogether in the United States is and always has been dependent on their economic status.
Collateral Sanctions & Stratification
Disadvantaging felons even after they have served their formal sentence and allow for those disadvantages to extend towards one’s peers, racial group, and community is an important method of creating an interconnected system of disadvantage. That system spurs the fostering of a pattern of both law enforcement targeting and poverty that truly serves to trap these groups and communities into an endless cycle from which they have little chance to escape. The collateral damage is as staggering as it is intended, as no meaningful reforms to our criminal justice system have yet to take place or even come under serious consideration by our government. Our criminal justice system attempts to incarcerate the impoverished to provide the government with cheap labor while those convicted of felonies serve to create more victims of this broken and unjust system.
In examining these truths, the only rational conclusion that can be reached is that our nation’s criminal justice system has historically been and continues to be designed to perpetuate an outcome of inspiring criminal behavior among the poor and subsequently punishing them for it. This signifies above all else that the system is broken and intended only to retain division in this country. While racial division is now longer considered acceptable, economic division remains fair game, and the link between the two is a convenient factor in the reason that black Americans are still incarcerated at a much higher rate than white Americans. If we truly wish to address the problem of economic and racial inequality as they exist in this country today, the first objective on the list of solutions would absolutely need to be an overhaul of the functionality of our criminal justice system.
- Covert, B. (2015, December 10). How the system punishes children if their parent has a criminal record. Retrieved August 13, 2017, from https://thinkprogress.org/how-the-system-punishes-children-if-their-parent-has-a-criminal-record-ca9ccac0c762/
- Peyser, A. (2013, November 18). Proof that celebrities get special treatment in court. Retrieved August 13, 2017, from http://nypost.com/2013/11/18/entitled-celebs-get-special-treatment-in-court/
- Wheelock, D., & Uggen, C. (2006). Race, poverty and punishment: The impact of criminal sanctions on racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic inequality (pp. 1-47, Rep. No. 06-15). National Poverty Center.