Wednesday, May 19, 2010

I am a Criminal And So Are You

Lately, I've been telling people that I'm a criminal. This shocks most people, since I don't "look like" one. I'm a fairly clean-cut, light-skinned black woman with fancy degrees from Vanderbilt University and Stanford Law School. I'm a law professor and I once clerked for a U.S. Supreme Court Justice -- not the sort of thing you'd expect a criminal to do.

What'd you get convicted of? people ask. Nothing, I say. Well, then why do you say you're a criminal? Because I am a criminal, I say, just like you.

This is where the conversation gets interesting. Most of my acquaintances don't think of themselves as criminals. No matter what their color, age or gender, most of the people in my neighborhood and in my workplace seem to think criminals exist somewhere else -- in ghettos, mainly.


Alexander has touched a lot of sensitive issues with this essay and with her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

On one level she is saying that all of us have committed crimes for which we could have been punished. Now the usual definition of a criminal is someone who has been caught and convicted of violating the law. Maybe Alexander's definition fails to meet the legal criteria, but her other point is that crime and criminality is a social and political phenomenon.

She points out that many people believe that criminals are other people, and that they themselves are law abiding. Not true - we are all criminals. Granted, most of us have not committed violent felonies with the exception of Massey Energy, BP, and Toyota, to name just a few. But what about adultery? Or fornication? Or crime against nature? Drinking under age? Illegal and legal drugs? The list goes on and on.

Part of our current problem is that too many people are in prison and jail for non-violent crimes and that too many of these people are black, brown, and poor. We are building a huge, permanent underclass that will tax our resources well into the future. Several states are beginning to reduce this trend, but states like Idaho are only cutting their budgets, which will ensure that more people will fail.

If you are ever tempted to judge someone because, please keep in mind that but for the grace of God, there go I.

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