In Conversation with . . .
Paul Leighton, Part II
Volume 20 Issue 15 2012-04-20
Paul Leighton is a Diversity Fellow and a Technology Fellow in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology at the Eastern Michigan University. He has co-authored a number of important books on crime and violence, including Class, Race, Gender and Crime. 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.
(See Part I of this interview here.)
And Now For Some Answers
“I think that the question of how power can be exerted from the lower reaches has never been more important. It will ultimately determine whether another world is indeed possible.”
Frances Fox Piven
In your experience, does studying crime and violence in such depth pose the risk of creating psychological and emotional stress for those studying it?
It largely depends on how you study it. People who do statistical studies are largely shielded by the numbers from some of the human suffering represented by the data, and that can be a helpful approach at times. At the other extreme are people out in the field where the violence is happening or dealing with victims closely and experiencing secondary trauma from that.
For many people there is some perspective that comes from studying violence, and it can be immensely rewarding when or if your work helps someone. There are still rough spots—depression, cynicism, etc.—but some positives also. Take a look at some pictures drawn by survivors of the atomic bomb, and your crappy day doesn’t seem as bad, even if you continue to be bothered by what you saw.
What kinds of practices might serve as antidotes to this kind of stress?
Being able to take a break from it when you need to. Having friends and family around to remind you it’s not all evil and fucked up out there. Many organizations that deal with violence more directly for longer periods of time develop programs, formal or informal counselling, or mental health days, etc., to help people.
Is it possible that the large corporations holding most of the world’s wealth now are simply too powerful to police?
The first edition of David Korton’s book When Corporations Rule the World was 1995. In 2010, when you compare the revenue of corporations to the GDP (total of all goods and services sold), more than 30 of the top 100 economies are corporations. So, yes, they are too powerful to police and they increasingly can bully nations and regulatory agencies. I’m pessimistic about change occurring here. In the wake of the last financial crisis, we did not break up “too big to fail” financial institutions. It wasn’t even a serious conversation.
What’s the answer? How can we work together to reduce violence?
Let’s start by recognizing that punishment has a limited place in preventing crime and violence. Budgets that spend more on prison than [on] higher education and community programs are indications of unsustainable and misguided policy. We need to get outside of the criminal justice system and embrace the priorities identified by Currie in an earlier question.
There are additional policies related to improving communities and implementing restorative justice practices. These regard crime not as a harm to the state, but to the community. It tries to heal rather than punish, hold the offender accountable, and really listen to the victim. We need to fund the Violence Against Women Act and get serious about acquaintance rape.
I fear a longer list has the tendency to overwhelm rather than help. I’d say that there are individual, community, and structural answers for each type of violence. No one has the obligation to fix it all. But this is an important area to understand, even if it is just so that our thoughts and comments do not lend support for bad policies.