In Conversation With . . . Paul Leighton, Part I

Paul Leighton is a Diversity Fellow and a Technology Fellow in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology at the University of Eastern Michigan. He has co-authored a number of important books on crime and violence, including Class, Race, Gender and Crime (see his blog here). He’s often quoted by major media outlets in the United States and beyond. On March 12, as part of the Saul O Sidore Lectures Series at Plymouth State University, he spoke on the subject discussed in his book The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Inequality, Corporate Power and Crime (co-authored with Jeffrey Reiman), arguing that the kind of extreme economic inequality that exists in the United States today increases the incidence and severity of crime at both ends of the class spectrum. Recently he took the time to discuss his research with Wanda Waterman.

?We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.?

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis

?Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great! . . . The kings of the earth committed adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.?

Revelation 18: 2-3 (NIV)

The (Dire) Social Repercussions of Inequality

Do you believe that the present generation is properly equipped to tackle the problem of crime in America?

Let’s be clear that the crime problem in America is 1) violent crime and 2) white-collar and corporate crime. There is enough research that we can feel comfortable in recommending a wide range of evidence-based policies. So we have solutions. The problem is being able to influence Congress in order to implement solutions. For violent crime this involves longer-term policies, many of which do not benefit the interests of the criminal justice-industrial complex. For white-collar crime this involves campaign finance reform and overturning the Citizens United decision that allows corporations to contribute unlimited money to elections.

Anyone interested in solutions to violent crime should read Elliott Currie’s book, Crime and Punishment in America. His critique of tough-on-crime is dated, but correct. He has an accessible review of the literature and suggests that ?four priorities seem especially critical: preventing child abuse and neglect, enhancing children’s intellectual and social development, providing support and guidance to vulnerable adolescents, and working intensively with juvenile offenders.?

Solutions to white-collar and corporate crime also have been well developed. There are literally hundreds of solutions that range from requiring corporations [to] publicize their crimes (and undermine their PR efforts) to having an annual white-collar and corporate crime report to the nation. Establishing a division within the Department of Justice to deal with corporate crime seems obvious, as does further expansion of whistle-blower laws.

Why do you not equate prisons with justice?

I see prison as being justified for a range of violent and white-collar offenders because of the harm they do. But prison as we currently use it has a number of problems.

First, it is overused, and the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. This has meant incarceration for many people?disproportionately minority?who have committed petty or drug offenses. It has also created a criminal justice-industrial complex that feeds off the billions of dollars we spend; it promotes its own good and profits above public safety. We even have private prisons that run prisons for a profit and have shares traded on Wall Street.

Second, it has a number of criminogenic, or crime-producing, effects. If prisons are schools for crime, building prisons and locking people up is not a good solution. We know prisons do not rehabilitate and that inmates adapt to prison in ways that do not make them more empathetic or compassionate to others. Excessive use of prison also causes community disorganization by pulling people out of the community and returning them worse for their stay in prison. This creates additional problems, and the children of inmates also tend to have problems.

Third, prison is expensive. It can be $25,000 to $50,000 a year depending on security level and location. That’s about $60 billion a year we spend on prisons, and some of that money . . . could be better spent in other ways.

So we pay a lot of money for prisons, money that ends up reducing public safety and causing other social problems. We need to do a better job considering economic, racial, and community impacts in deciding on the level of imprisonment. We need to think more about releasing offenders who have not been harmed by the prison system (punished, yes; made worse, no). And we need to readjust the balance of minor street offenders in prison and wealthy executives not in prison.

How does the media enable corporate crime in America?

They reinforce the association of ?crime? with ?street crime? rather than acts done by corporations that harm workers, consumers, communities, and the environment. People thus see the biggest threat to them as coming from the poor rather than from the rich. Tough-on-crime policies are then directed at the poor rather than at corporations. The portrayal of street criminals also tends to locate their crimes in individual pathology or bad choices, so our unequal society is not examined or held up as something we need to change.

The other big concern is corporate ownership of media?GE’s ownership of NBC Universal, for example, which gives it control over NBC News, MSNBC, CNBC, USA Network, and others. So we get endless CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) programs, but no Mortgage Fraud Investigation programs. We get USA’s White Collar series that almost never features wrongdoing by corporations or government.

(To be continued.)

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