Writing of the Nazis in 1948, Graham Greene said:
"The totalitarian state contrives, by educating its citizens, to suppress all sense
of guilt, all indecision of mind." "It is an apt description of the current
state of the politics of crime in the United States," writes Jerome Miller, author of
Search and Destroy: African-American Males in the Criminal Justice System. Miller
doesn’t shrink from drawing apt historical comparisons to contemporary U.S. political
economy, and Search and Destroy doesn’t flinch in identifying aspects of not a
possible, or emerging police state in the United States, but what already is an ever more
deeply entrenched one. The book describes the tightening noose around the collective neck
of the American underclass with urgency and passion.
The numbers of Black men whose lives are touched by the criminal
justice system–from those lightly bruised to those whose lives are destroyed–are grim:
Miller estimates lifetime risk of criminal justice system involvement for Black males to
be between 80 percent and 90 percent.
A wide web of criminalized behaviors are the tools used to catch
these men. Miller offers, by way of example, 100 unserved arrest warrants he happened on
in a Florida county court: only two were for acts which might have been violent, six
resulted from people inadequately controlling their dog, and seven involved fishing
violations. These are these kind of petty and often archaic violations people are getting
jailed for every day. Once in jail, many cannot scrounge up the several hundred dollars
for bail or a bail bondsperson, and if they have employment, they often lose it. A
criminal record is also established–whether or not the arrestee is convicted–inhibiting
future chances of employment.
Miller suggests that the disruption discriminatory and abusive law
enforcement wreaks on Black communities has "been a major contributor to breakdown in
inner cities." He attributes the attack to a law enforcement surge fueled by a
distorting servant-to-power media, which kicked off massive crime coverage in the early
1980s, creating in many American minds a urgent problem that hadn’t previously existed.
Then, "because relatively few violent offenders could be found among the millions of
underclass citizens of color who received the brunt of the newly energized justice
system… the definitions of dangerousness were twisted and stretched to include as many
among them as possible as often as possible." The result was an expansion of
"the net of justice control ever more widely into the community where traditionally
other agents of social control defined matters (e.g., family, church, school, etc.)."
"Along the way," he continues, the process "has spawned an industry fully
capable of producing sufficient numbers of new clientele to validate the need for its
existence and justify its growth, demanding more police, arrests, prosecutions, and
Corroborating these assertions are studies documenting the
substantial rise in arrests for non-index as opposed to index (serious) crimes over the
decade of the 1980s, when the law enforcement frenzy began in its current incarnation.
Only 5 percent of arrests in 1991, for example, were for what Miller classifies as violent
offenses. The numbers of people being sent to prison for property crimes and drug offenses
soared. Miller gives descriptions of what people were jailed for, and what effect it had
on their lives, to make the statistics speak, and to make the pain they represent more
Miller spends much time describing the short failings of the
criminal justice system, and it is assumed transitively that because Blacks are
disproportionately effected by the criminal justice system, race is the primary issue at
play. But his comments on class do not preclude it from being a driving force for criminal
justice involvement: he states that "the justice juggernaut… tends to crush those
more easily identifiable by race and socioeconomic status than by their violent of serious
criminal behavior"; he feels that criminologist John Irwin’s characterization of
jails as "rabble management" is accurate. His assertion that "crime has
become a metaphor for race," in the media and the narrow public debate is undeniable,
but that’s still not saying that rich Blacks are being sucked into the criminal justice
system with any more gusto than rich whites are. Because a large factor in keeping so many
Blacks poor is institutional racism, the line between classism and racism blurs. But many
poor whites are being sucked into the criminal justice sinkhole by the same expansion of
state power that Miller discusses–and with similar justifications of hereditary
inferiority being used against them. They shouldn’t be ignored.
A long revealing look at the academics and think-tank bottom
dwellers who provided an intellectual veneer for the Reagan-era war on drugs and
imprisonment binge is Miller’s next subject. He reports "American criminological
research came to resemble that generated for the Pentagon during the Vietnam War–focused
on narrow issues for technical purposes in the service of ideology." "Punitive
pundits" understood that to keep research money flowing they would have to tailor
their findings accordingly. They found "nothing works" in rehabilitating
offenders–with the fraudulent underlying thesis that genuine attempts to rehabilitate had
actually at one point been made. Discipline, deterrence, and "incapacitation"
are their preferred tools maintaining the status quo. Criminals weigh risks, and proceed
accordingly–hence the strength of deterrence. This latter idea "made eminent sense
to white middle-class policy makers of both parties who, having a stake in society and a
fair amount to lose, could relate to the deterrent value of perceived risk."
Aggressive marketing and media receptiveness to these ideas assured
that public debate moved to the right and that ideologically unsatisfactory efforts were
left in the dust. Miller also places racist treatises like The Bell Curve
into the healthy American eugenic tradition, as well as revealing the victims of that
tradition in practice.
The direction Miller fears all this is headed towards is summarized
in the title of his last chapter: "The Future: From Managerial Efficiency to
Biological Necessity." The fear is that the current trend of dehumanizing the
criminal class with "managerial efficiency" will be taken to its logical
conclusion: internment camps (massive prisons by another name) and more final solutions.
It will be the hard "biological necessity" that eugenicists have been preparing
us for for most of this century. Unfortunately, U.S and world history doesn’t offer many
reassurances that this is implausible.
Miller lays out what he would like to see done with the criminal
justice system. Refreshingly–because it is so necessary-the recommendations go beyond a
simple reformism. They deal with "criminality" as what it is: something between
human error and logical behavior depending on the bankruptcy of the perpetrators’ options
and other recourses. Miller knows the proposals are a wish list, very unlikely to be
instituted "without major political changes in the nation," and for this reasons
seems almost reluctant to lay them out. But they’re necessary to avoid the further
entrenchment of an authoritarian state, and as such offer a vision that needs to be moved
Compelled to Crime is a painful picture of the way in which an
unattainable self-image engrained and withheld by dominant cultural forces tears and
wounds people. "Personal responsibility" is something the battered Black women
whose lives it describes have not had the luxury to experience: the question in regards to
their abusive mates is a more difficult issue, as Miller’s work partially demonstrates.
The most favored girl in their impoverished families, the cost of
maintaining that love involved absorbing the dominant ideology of what a family should be.
It also often involved not revealing sexual abuse, because smart girls wouldn’t get
themselves into such situations. Encouragement in academics dwindled as they entered
puberty, and in their late adolescence they found themselves walled in by the
institutional constraints of "traditional Black women’s work." As they
encountered disappointing race and class restrictions, self-sabotage began to play a role:
no one could make them fail, they would retain that power themselves.
In their personal lives, the responsibility of trying to create the
family they were expected to have involved covering up more abuse-physical, emotional and
sexual–while focusing their energy on making their nuclear family into what it was
supposed to be. The women expected a lot from the relationship, but little from the men.
Sometimes drug use created a new bond between the women and the abusers, sometimes
stealing together did–with the women taking most of the risk. Regardless, the criminal
activity was often seen by the women as a way of postponing more violence.
In all cases, the levels of torment by their male partner got worse
with time: tortures as macabre and extreme as being forced to literally eat shit, to stand
on a frying pan as the abuser gradually turned up the heat, and getting a hand chopped
with a meat cleaver. Most of the women were permanently disfigured. In several cases the
abuser killed a child of the women, then convinced the state to charge her with murder.
Physical deterioration in the women was rapid, due to batterings and compounded by the use
of drugs and alcohol. The downward spiral, from favorite girl to junked up thief,
prostitute or even worse in the eyes of the law, ended for a time on Rikers Island, one of
the largest penal colonies in the world, and New York City’s biggest jail.
Such are the tales Beth Richie tells, and such is the model of
"the gender entrapment of battered Black women" that she articulates. The book
is an excellent companion to Miller’s focus on men. Gender entrapment is a negative
feedback loop that constantly takes its victims to new levels of low. Walled in by
race/ethnicity, class and gender, the women are railroaded by societal norms and
underclass restrictions from relatively happy girlhoods to the dreamless nightmares that
many endure once they reach a sort of bottoming out in state detention. For some jail
offered a sort of respite, as well as a form of protection. At the same time it was
consistent with the degrading and disrespectful treatment they had become used to.
The women stayed with their abuser until arrested for crimes: drug
offenses, property crimes, prostitution, arson, murder–crimes to which their abuser
undeniably led them. Richie points out that given the predictability of private life abuse
versus the untrustable unpredictability of public space, and the fact that violent men are
more likely to kill the woman they are abusing if she leave than if she stays, the women’s
choice to stay with the abusive companions was in some respects logical. It was, as Richie
writes, "part of their survival strategy."
Richie’s gender entrapment model is drawn from open-ended life
history interviews with 26 battered Black women at the Rose M. Singer Center at Rikers
Island Correctional Facility. Richie also spoke with six Black women who were not
battered, and five white women who were, as a way to highlight and pinpoint the different
forces of entrapment that African American women abused by their intimates face. The text
consists of Richie’s gender entrapment thesis being developed and fine-tuned as good-sized
chunks of the women’s words illustrate the points she is making. The words of the
prisoners bring a stark immediacy to the material: Richie’s analysis brings together the
common threads and points the finger at an unjust social system.
The use of the reference groups deepens Richie’s works by providing
a good look at the circumstances non-battered Black and battered white women face as well.
Women continue to be trapped in abusive relationships, locked in bedrooms and cells.
Richie’s honest look at why they’re there is very welcome.
Search and Destroy and Compelled to Crime illustrate the
narrative possibilities of criminological research. The books are lonely in their
integrity, John Irwin (co-author of It’s About Time: America’s Imprisonment
Binge [2nd ed., 1997] and author of The Jail: Managing the Underclass in
American Society  among others) being the most notable accompanying colleague.
What they do is a true criminology, concerned with where crime comes from and what
it is, as opposed to penology, looking for better and more effective ways to make people
do what they are told.
The central struggle is between the Right’s beloved "free
agents," independent criminal actors who weight involved risks vs. the Left’s
emphasis on "root causes," or any consideration of the context of the
crime and the context of the perpetrator’s life. The differences between these two
standpoints are represented on one hand by a reliance on crudely manipulated statistics,
telling the white middle class through their media that their prejudices are justified,
and on the other a narrative, almost literary sociology, in which lives are described and
the individuality of each case is taken as a given.
The power of narrative criminology is that it is much harder to
torment someone with a face. As such it is an effective way to combat the conversion of
the poor into fodder for a law and order regime. With a police state consolidating and the
so-called crime-control industry ballooning, I for one want to see who is being consumed.
Daniel Burton-Rose is a student at Oberlin College and co-editor of This
Ain’t Your Daddy’s Country Club: Prisons, Profits, and the Celling of America, a
prison legal news anthology. (Common Courage Press, spring 1998).