What is a crime? What is punishment? Before taking Dr. Davidson’s Prison and Social Control Class, I thought these questions could be answered simply.
What I have realized, however, is that the questions surrounding crime, punishment, and the criminal justice system. are much more complicated.
That is because these things don’t just affect our criminal justice system. Crime and punishment is related to social institutions with their own context, culture, and history.
There are many different theoretical ideas on crime and punishment. Some argue that the purpose of the criminal justice system is to portray the poor as criminals while at the same time ignoring the crimes of the wealthy. Others argue that the purpose of the criminal justice system is to maintain racial discrimination. One thing these differing views all have in common is that the ideas are based on social meaning, behaviors, and processes. Society has labeled what is a crime, what is punishment, and what is a prisoner. These labels are reinforced through social definitions and the decisions of the criminal justice system and legislatures.
Moreover, the criminal justice system thrives off of these labels. By labeling someone as a prisoner, they are no longer considered human. They are now felons who have to deal with a special type of discrimination and stigma due to the prison label. These labels are reinforced through other institutions such as schools, probation and police officers, and even the family as individuals are caught in a social context of deviance, punishment, criminality, and constant surveillance. Labels create a vicious cycle of shame and deviance that becomes internalized.
A specific example of this is the day to day life of young men in Oakland, California. In Victor Rios’ book “Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys,” he describes how different social institutions such as education and family work with the criminal justice system to criminalize the boys growing up in this area. Rios describes how these boys are considered criminals because they grew up in a community labeled as criminal. These labels create a sense of shame and deviance that becomes internalized and creates criminality.
Rios argues, “The cycle of crime and violence cannot be addressed by changing the appearance of a place and incarcerating its denizens; we must start by changing the social contexts that provide actors the resources for partaking in specific behavior and by transforming the ways in which we perceive and treat — criminalize or incorporate — these populations,” (Rios, 47).
We had a guest speaker come to class, a convicted felon, whose advice was “don’t go back to where you came from.” Why? Because some social contexts can be breeding grounds for deviant behavior because of their circumstances. The social context then provides the labels and the definitions of crime and punishment.
To really fix the problem, we need to fix social contexts. Many of the issues of the criminal justice system are social issues that somehow became equalized with crime and criminalization. By abandoning poor neighborhoods and by labeling these areas as poor and therefore criminal, we are only furthering criminalization. Through racism and determining labels based off of skin color, we are only furthering criminalization. The criminal justice system is largely intertwined with larger social institutions and we need new social contexts that will help others, not just streamline them in jail.
Anna-Drake Stephens, Columnist