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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Enforcement and the Poor -- Equality Should Be Our American Birthright

When you are a poor person without all the window dressings of others living "the good life," you cling to your basic beliefs with desperate tenacity because they are the tenets of your existence. Two of those important views are your trust in equality and your belief in justice. Your faith holds that these qualities are your birthright and a lifelong inheritance from your ancestors.

Along with your classmates from all economic and social levels, you are taught that the guiding first principle of the American founding, according to the Declaration of Independence, is that "all men are created equal." You read that Abraham Lincoln confirmed this in his Gettysburg Address, proclaiming nearly a century after the Declaration that America was still "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

Yet, based on experience, many less fortunate soon find that the rich and the politically connected receive special favor. One example of that favor is the privilege afforded to police and the apparent disregard some enforcement officers have for the rights of others. The detrimental aspects of police misconduct cannot be overstated.

In terms of public trust for law enforcement, a Gallup Poll shows that only 56 percent of people rated the police as having a high or very high ethical standard as compared with 84 percent for nurses.

("Nurses Shine, Bankers Slump in Ethics Ratings." Gallup Poll News. November 24, 2008)

In enforcement, Virtue ethics emphasizes the role of an officer's character and the virtues that the person's character embodies for determining or evaluating ethical behavior. It relies on dispositional qualities, such as personality traits, values, or attitudes, to explain deviant behavior.

For example, if officers fabricate evidence to obtain search warrants, their actions reflect their dishonest character. According to this view, character predisposes officers to act certain ways, regardless of the situation. 

Findings from the fifth round of the European Social Survey (ESS) confirm that unsatisfactory police contact damages trust and erodes legitimacy. Those who regard the police as lacking in legitimacy also express less consent to the rule of law, less willingness to co-operate with the justice system, and more likelihood to break laws.

The ESS findings support the idea that fair and respectful treatment by the police generates trust and bolsters police legitimacy. Legitimacy finds practical expression in people's sense that they are under a moral obligation to defer to police officers and to comply with the law. When the justice system enjoys legitimacy, people believe that they should comply with the law and that it is unacceptable to use violence to achieve their own social or political goals.

 (Mike Hough, Jonathan Jackson, and Ben Bradford. "Reading the Riots."
The Guardian. December 12, 2011)

Professor Mike Hough, co-director of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at the University of London, explains ...

"Our research lends support to the Danish adage that trust arrives on foot and leaves on horseback. The negative effect of one poorly handled stop-and-search may have implications far beyond an immediate sense of annoyance. Once police have lost the trust of the policed, it can be very hard to regain it."

The poor victims of unsatisfactory police contact lose all precious hope that justice reigns supreme.
These common folk, especially those without any political connections, find they are just second-class citizens who are often manipulated by a ruling class that dictates what is "appropriate" police action.

To them, equality and justice become nothing but inky symbols on paper. As they realize their superiors, at best, merely tolerate their existence, they understand although they are supposed to be "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," they face unfair treatment in their pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.

In fact, the poor become the scapegoats for crime in a system that favors inequality. Critical criminologists warn: “Greater investment in criminal justice is consistent with a political economy devoted to increasing capital for the wealthy while subjecting the lower classes to coercive measures of social control.”
(Michael Welch. Punishment in America. 1999)

In his book The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, author Jeffrey Reiman illustrates the injustices experienced by lower classes at each level of the criminal justice system: definitions of crimes, policing, arrest procedures, court proceedings and representation, and finally sentencing.

Reiman acknowledges there has been increased prosecution and punishment of white collar crime, but he emphasizes the rich are not caught, processed, prosecuted, and sentenced as severely or as often as the poor. The poor and indigent fall through the cracks.

During the past twenty years, the gap has widened between the rich and the poor; therefore, “the rich get richer and the poor get prison.” Reiman compares the American criminal justice system to a mirror, “in which a whole society can see the darker outlines of its face…what is justice and what is evil.” His book claims the systems does not attempt to “eliminate crime or to achieve justice,” rather it reinforces the image that the “threat of crime” is a “threat from the poor.” 

(Liza Lugo, J.D. "Prison for the Poor, Riches for the Rich." 2012 and 
Jeffrey H. Reiman. The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison. 2000)

The confidence of the American people in the system of criminal justice likely depends upon their standing on the economic ladder. Without equality, is it any wonder the poor feel neglected and deprived of their rights? The political influence of the well-to-do is not something new: it is a continuation of practices used to maintain controls that have been perpetrated upon the masses for centuries.

The justification of the holding of power by enforcement is created when we believe that justice institutions have a set of moral values that align with our own. This is known as moral alignment, in which normative justifiability of power creates political obligations through a sense of shared goals.  

Perhaps the biggest question is "Do the majority of American citizens sense their values are aligned with the values of the justice system?"

I think Reiman was correct when he wrote ...

"The American criminal justice has failed to reduce crime and has failed to protect society’s most vulnerable citizens, the poor. Therefore, in line with the Declaration of Independence, 'whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.' Thus the criminal justice system will have to change in order to protect society, maintain order, and preserve justice."

"To say we trust you means we believe you have the right intentions toward us and that you are competent to do what we trust you to do." 

--R. Hardin

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