The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison

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The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison
JEFFREY H. REIMAN
American University
or the same criminal behavior, the poor are more likely to be arrested; if arrested, they are more likely to be charged; if charged, more likely to be convicted; if convicted, more likely to be sentenced to prison; and if sentenced, more likely to be given longer prison terms than members of the middle and upper classes.1 In other words, the image of the criminal population one sees in our nation’s jails and prisons is distorted by the shape of the criminal justice system itself. It is the face of evil reflected in a carnival mirror, but it is no laughing matter.

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The face in the criminal justice carnival mirror is also … very frequently black face. Although blacks do not make up the majority of the inmates in our jails and prisons, they make up a proportion that far outstrips their proportion in the population.2 Here, too, the image we see is distorted by the processes of the criminal justice system itself. Edwin Sutherland and Donald Cressey write in their widely used textbook Criminology that Numerous studies have shown that African-Americans are more likely to be arrested, indicted, convicted, and committed to an institution than are whites who commit the same offenses, and many other studies have shown that blacks have a poorer chance than whites to receive probation, a suspended sentence, parole, commutation of a death sentence, or pardon.3 Curiously enough, statistics on differential treatment of races are available in greater abundance than are statistics on differential treatment of economic classes. For instance, although the FBI tabulates arrest rates by race (as well as by sex, age, and geographical area), it omits class or income. Similarly, both the President’s Crime Commission Report and Sutherland and Cressey’s Criminology

have index entries for race or racial discrimination but none for class or income of offenders. It would seem that both independent and government data gatherers are more willing to own up to America’s racism than to its class bias. Nevertheless, it does not pay to look at these as two independent forms of bias. It is my view that, at least as far as criminal justice is concerned, racism is simply one powerful form of economic bias. I use evidence on differential treatment of blacks as evidence of differential treatment of members of the lower classes. There are five reasons: 1. First and foremost, black Americans are disproportionately poor. In 1995, while one out of every eight white Americans received income below the poverty line, three out of every ten black Americans did.4 The picture is even worse when we shift from income to wealth (property such as a home, land, stocks): In 1991, black households owned one-tenth the median net worth of white households.5 Unemployment figures give a similarly dismal picture: In 1995, 4.9 percent of white workers were unemployed and 10.4 percent of blacks were. Among those in the crime-prone ages of 16 to 24, 15.6 percent of white youngsters (with no college) and 34.0 (more than one of every three) black youngsters (with no college) were jobless.6 2. The factors most likely to keep one out of trouble with the law and out of prison, such as a suburban living room instead of a tenement alley to gamble in or legal counsel able to devote time to one’s case instead of an overburdened public defender, are the kinds of things that money can buy regardless of one’s race, creed, or national origin. For example, as we shall see, arrests of blacks for illicit drug possession or dealing have sky-

Reiman, Jeffrey, THE RICH GET RICHER AND THE POOR GET PRISON: Ideology, Class and Criminal Justice, 5th Edition, © 1998, pp. 101–148. Adapted by permission of Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, NJ.

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2 The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison
rocketed in recent years, rising way out of proportion to drug arrests for whites— though research shows no...
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