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As many know, some form of justice system has been present within civilized society since the beginning of time whether one cites the exile of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden or, more recently, the prison sentence of actor Wesley Snipes for tax evasion. Throughout the justice system's storied history it has underwent changes due to various evolutions in technology, philosophy, as well as many other variables, though; the purpose of the justice system has always remained the same. Justice, as defined by Merriam-Webster Online, is "the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments" (Justice, 2010, para. 1). Even with the length of time that justice systems have been utilized, many will attest to the fact that it is not a perfect machine. There are still issues within the justice system such as guilty offenders being set free on technicalities and innocent individuals receiving punishment. The discipline of critical criminology views the class, ethnic, and patriarchal relations that control society as the major contributors to crime and feel that major structural and cultural changes within society would be more effective rather than the current total methods currently utilized in the criminal justice system (Donnermeyer & DeKeseredy, 2008). This manuscript will briefly discuss the discipline of critical criminology. Additionally, the author will utilize crime information in West Virginia to provide evidence supporting the claim that the criminal justice system is oppressive in its dealings with poverty stricken individuals.
Sykes (1974) stated that critical criminology "forces an inquiry into precisely how the normative content of the criminal law is internalized in different segments of society and how norm-holding is actually related to behavior" (p. 208). The foundations of critical criminology can be found in many radical schools such as Marxism as well as many ideological perspectives and theoretical traditions such as anarchism, interactionism, contemporary feminism, conflict theory, and French postmodernism (Wright & Friedrichs, 1998). Research conducted in critical criminology tends to stem from the same general assumptions including: the repressive approach of the state towards criminal justice is ineffective towards crime and perpetuate the existence of discrimination and inequitable justice; a positivistic approach towards criminal justice is misguided or limited; a truly effective response to crime will require a structural and cultural transformation; and both crime and criminal justice are largely effected by the political economy such as race, ethnicity, crime, and gender (DeKeseredy & Schwartz, 1996). Several areas of criminality and the criminal justice system have been examined based upon these assumptions including racial influences on parole revocation for incarcerated offenders with life sentences (Beck, 2010), therapeutic leisure and recreation for incarcerated women (Pedlar, Yuen, & Fortune, 2008), and sexual assault after a separation or divorce (DeKeseredy, Schwartz, Fagan, & Hall, 2006).
There are a number of different perspectives that are covered under the heading of critical criminology. Among these multiple perspectives are left realism, peacemaking criminology, feminist criminology, and the race and criminal justice perspective. Left realism focuses upon understanding crime through the complex interactions between the state, offender, general public, and the victim or between macro- and micro-level phenomena (DeKeseredy, MacLean, and Schwartz, 1997; Young 1997). Feminist criminology focuses upon the victimization of women as well as the patriarchal society and the role of the values of society plays in criminality and criminal law (Wright & Friedrichs, 1998). Peacemaking criminology proposes alternative methods within criminal justice such as restorative justice over retributive justice, reconciliation over incarceration, and social policy over social control (deHaan, 1991; Pepinsky & Quinney, 1997). Lastly, the race and criminal justice focuses upon the effects that different biases have upon the criminal justice system (Wright & Friedrichs, 1998). It is within latter category that the scope of this manuscript lies.
Crimes of Poverty
Evidence suggests that aspects of certain crimes make them more likely to be committed by an individual categorized as impoverished rather than an individual within a higher income bracket. For example, those that are impoverished would be more likely to participate in forging a name on a check than those that are categorized within a higher income bracket. This may be explained by the need for money that is many times displayed within the impoverished or low income. Likewise, one may also assume that individuals who are impoverished would not be likely to commit the offense of embezzlement as would an individual who is from a higher income bracket. While this crime displays the obtainment of money by other than legal means for personal use, it is less likely that an individual who is impoverished would find themselves in a situation in which they have the opportunity to commit the crime of embezzlement.
For the purposes of this manuscript, the author has categorized several crimes as ones that are more likely to be committed by an individual who is categorized as impoverished (For full list see Appendix A). Several of the categorizations have been reinforced through correlations discovered within academic research and including property crimes such as shoplifting and larceny and vandalism. It must be stressed that, even though these particular crimes have been categorized for the purposes of this manuscript as being committed by impoverished individuals, this does not indicate that the impoverished are the sole perpetrators of these particular crimes.
In today's society, the role of the criminal justice system is not only to seize offenders and judge them but also to impart penalties that not only act as a deterrent but are also impartial in their implementation. As many are aware, sentences are handed down everyday that not only fail as a deterrent but also show bias towards certain groups of individuals. A group of individuals that this is greatly obvious in are those that are impoverished.
In 2009, the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services released the guidelines by which a low income family is deemed impoverished. According to these guidelines, a family of four must make $22,050 or less to be considered impoverished. If the family were to make the maximum amount required, this would allow for $5,512 to be spent on each individual within the family. This figure does not take into consideration normal living expenses such as utilities, food, and clothing as well as others. Even though it is hard for many to comprehend, the harsh reality is that many families live well below the poverty threshold which, in turn, a number resort to criminal activities, such as the ones mentioned above, to make ends meet.
As was discussed earlier in this manuscript, there are certain crimes which are reasonably categorized as more likely to be committed by a low income or impoverished individual. When these individuals are arrested they are subject to the exact same penalties that those of a higher income bracket are subject to. When in comparison, it becomes obvious that the penalties seem to be weighted towards those who live in poverty (See Appendix B). For example, Family A is a family of four that receives a household income of $18,000 while Family B is of the same size but receives a household income of $100,000. After spending money on utilities and other living expenses as well as spending money on an unplanned repair on the dated family vehicle, Family A finds that they do not have enough money to buy diapers and formula for their newborn baby. To remedy this situation, the father figure in Family A travels to the local supermarket and attempts to shoplift the needed items getting arrested in the process. Alternatively, Family B has no problem buying the necessities that their family needs to survive along with purchasing a vehicle for their son and going out to eat at least twice a week. One night, the eighteen year old son in Family B decides that he wants to rebel against his parents and decides to attempt to shoplift a DVD from the local supermarket also getting arrested in the attempt.
In the above example, both families are arrested for the crime of shoplifting in which case, as was mentioned earlier, both families are subject to the exact same penalties. Let us assume that in both cases it was a first offense in which case the penalty in WV is a fine of no more than $200 as well as restitution to the vendor of the larger amount between either $50 or double the price of the item. In this case, Family B may find the penalty to be a slight inconvenience and may even ground the rebellious son and make him work off the penalty. It has already been established that Family A is not even able to purchase the necessities for their own family without having to pay a fine on a shoplifting charge. In this case, who is really feeling the weight of the penalty's implementation?