This is an archive of the former website of the Maoist Internationalist Movement, which was run by the now defunct Maoist Internationalist Party - Amerika. The MIM now consists of many independent cells, many of which have their own indendendent organs both online and off. MIM(Prisons) serves these documents as a service to and reference for the anti-imperialist movement worldwide.
The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice
Jeffrey Reiman
Allyn & Bacon, Boston: 1995
(Fourth Edition)
review by MCB52

The 1995 edition of this 1978 classic has lots of handy statistics updated to demonstrate that the criminal injustice system does not exist to fight "crime," but to perpetuate the dominance of already powerful groups. The author, Jeffrey Reiman, is a social democrat who uses Marxist analysis in some interesting ways, without claiming to be a communist.

The central thesis of the book is that the Amerikan criminal justice system operates with a policy of "Pyrrhic defeat." This term is derived from the notion in the academic study of war of a "Pyrrhic victory," a victory in one battle that cripples the winning army to such a degree it cannot win the war. The "War on Crime" is a Pyrrhic defeat because it is designed to lose against its professed targets but it "yields such benefits to those in power that it amounts to a success."(1)

Although the book talks a lot about the economic structure of society and its use of force to protect the status quo, it is more interested in the superstructural role of criminal justice. It focuses more on the "ideological function" of criminal justice than on the "repressive function." That is fine as a compliment to materialist analysis of the structural inequality, and even the author does not uphold it as a substitute.

Reiman leans on the social theory of bourgeois sociologists such as Emile Durkheim to talk about the function that "criminals" serve in creating a sense of social solidarity among everyone else. When a society rallies together in attacking those who have been defined as deviants, it enforces a sense of solidarity among them and charts out the limits of acceptable and unacceptable behavior in the society.

However, Reiman does not accept this notion of the function of crime wholesale. Durkheim did not realize that there are divisions in the society that make different members have divergent interests. Thus, as Reiman points out, the consensus about what behavior is acceptable and what is not is not pre-existing but is rather created in constant struggle of ideologies. The bourgeoisie gets to decide the ideology for the most part, and the criminal justice system it controls enforces that. Thus it creates a sense of solidarity for one part of society's solidarity--those in power.

In challenging the definition of crime and exposing it as not objective, Reiman statistically compares the harms due to occupational hazards and bad health care to those due to "crime." This is one illustration, but nowhere near as compelling as what he could of produced with an internationalist perspective. It is true that the laxity of enforcement of pollution restrictions causes injury and death to many people in the" united states. But by focusing on this country, Reiman ignores both the unequal harm toward different nations of people and the shear scope of the harms inflicted. Pointing to corporate-inflicted hazards within U.S. borders without reference to the Third World could lead Amerikans to a not-in-my-back-yard approach to corporate crime, which harms the world's majority.

MIM has often demonstrated one of Reiman's subheads: poverty kills. If you look in Amerikan prisons, you'll find almost exclusively poor people. But these are the very people who are on the receiving end of most crime. One example of murder of the oppressed: In 1989, black infant mortality (during the first year of life) was 17.7 per 1,000 live births compared with 8.2 for whites. In short, black mothers lose their babies within the first year of life more than twice as often as white mothers.(2)

Meanwhile, Amerika does not provide immunizations for the oppressed. Reiman does not fully grasp the ramifications of what he is saying here. It is true that Blacks in poverty are not receiving the immunizations they need, and are dying as a result. Plenty of other statistics are provided to illustrate the same thing. He also gives U.S.-Europe comparisons, but he does not see that one reason for the difference between Amerika and European countries is national contradictions in the United Snakes. Amerikans do not want to stop this crime against national minorities because of the larger benefits of national oppression.

Reiman demonstrates that even within the definition of crime tailored to exclude the bourgeoisie's crimes, there are further ways that the privileged are weeded out of prison.

"For the same criminal behavior, the poor are more likely to be arrested; if arrested, they are more likely to be charged; if charged they are more likely to be convicted; if convicted they are more likely to be sentenced to prison; and if sentenced they are more likely to be given longer prison terms than members of the middle and upper classes."(3)

These charges are demonstrated statistically. For example, in the 1991 National Crime Victimization Survey, 28% of people victimized by violent crime perceived their assailants as Black. Meanwhile, 37.8% of those arrested for those crimes were Black. Even forgetting that people are more likely to go to the police about a Black assailant, Reiman calculates that pigs are going after Blacks 30% more frequently than their perceived criminal activity.(4)

Because Reiman understands that society is divided, even as he is ambivalent whether race or class is most important, he can ask the question: "Who is Winning and Losing the War Against Crime?"

Reiman rejects conspiracy theories as impossible to prove and untenable. According to him, a conspiracy theory "would argue that the rich and powerful, seeing the benefits derived from the failure of criminal justice, consciously set out to use their wealth and power to make it fail." This is often what those with a radical critique of the power structure get accused of: reading some malice into the heads of the rich. Actually, radicals have a critique of what those in power do even when they are doing things they honestly believe are just right (which is as hard to believe as a conspiracy theory).

Reiman identifies three aspects of the failure of criminal justice, which are its Pyrrhic defeat. First, things that might actually decrease crime are not done: drugs are not decriminalized, poverty is not ameliorated, education is not provided, and so on. This results in a high rate of crime. Second, crimes of the rich and powerful are not identified as crimes. This criminalizes the poor. Third, the bias in all levels of the criminal justice system of nation and class is not addressed. This ensures that only certain groups are arrested and imprisoned. "In short, the effect of current criminal justice policy is at once to narrow the public's conception of what is dangerous to acts of the poor and to present a convincing embodiment of this danger."(5)

The question Reiman addresses is not how this came to be, but instead why it persists. He correctly recognizes that first, the system is benefiting those who could change it if they wanted to, at the expense of those without power. But his second reason gives too much credit to the Amerikan middle classes. "Because the criminal justice system shapes the public's conception of what is dangerous, it creates the impression that the harms it is fighting are the real threats to society--thus, even when people see the system as less than a roaring success they demand more of the same: more police, more prisons, longer prison sentences and so on."(6)

Reiman thinks that the "real" threats to society are the rich, who are oppressing the Amerikan middle classes, including the working classes. Actually, the Amerikans' gut instinct is more correct: the toppling of Amerikan society will be done by the oppressed internal colonies with the help of those external. Reiman expects them to discard their conservative impulse toward disparities of wealth, but MIM expects no such thing.

Reiman does at least recognize that "those who are mainly victimized by the 'failure' to reduce crime are by and large the poor themselves." This is true both because they are more likely to have crimes committed against them and because they will be victimized by the criminal injustice system.

Reiman argues against the implicit ideology of criminal justice on two counts. First, it concentrates on individuals and thus "diverts out attention away from our institutions, away from consideration of whether out institutions themselves are wrong or unjust or indeed 'criminal'." Second, "the criminal law is put forth as the minimum neutral ground rules for any social living." That means that after diverting our attention from the injustice of our social institutions, it "bestows on those institutions the mantle of its own neutrality."(7)

According to Reiman, the individual guilt approach of criminal justice puts exclusive focus on one half of the justice equation: whether the individual has fulfilled an obligation to society. "It is to look the other way from the issue of whether the fellow citizens have fulfilled their obligations to him or her."(p. 155) MIM has said over and over that there is no reason for individuals to rehabilitate themselves to a society that never habilitated them in the first place, and Reiman makes the same point. "Justice is a two-way street--but criminal justice is a one-way street."(8)

The fact is, whether the society will call something a crime depends on the circumstances under which it occurred. Criminal justice's sleight-of-hand is that it decides which of those circumstances is important.

"Killing someone is ordinarily a crime, but if it is in self-defense or to stop a deadly crime, it is not. Taking property by force is usually a crime, but if the taking is retrieving what has been stolen, then no crime has been committed... This means that when we call something a crime, we are saying that the conditions in which it occurs are not themselves to criminal or deadly or oppressive or so unjust as to make an extreme response reasonable or justifiable or noncriminal. This means that when the system holds an individual accountable for a crime, it implicitly conveys the message that the social conditions in which the crime occurred are not responsible for the crime, that they are not so unjust as to make a violent response to them excusable."(8)

Reiman uses the example of the law against theft to show that the neutrality of criminal justice is in fact biased toward the present social structure. Even under socialism there will be laws against theft, but the thing is that the law here and now is protecting those who have property now from those who don't. (9)

Reiman includes lots of polls to demonstrate that most Amerikans prefer more criminal injustice to a just social order. He uses them to illustrate his contention that they are duped by the upper classes--that the masses are asses. "It is clear that Americans have been successfully deceived as to what are the greatest dangers to their lives, limbs, and possessions."(10) Actually, it's Reiman who's been deceived, and he should have caught on by now.

MIM recommends this book for its good information and some good analysis. With knowledge of MIM's line on the labor aristocracy as a backdrop, this is very useful book.

1. p. 5
2. p. 88
3. p. 101
4. p. 102
5. p. 150
6. p. 151
7. p. 155
8. p. 156
9. p. 157
10. p. 161

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