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Penal excess

Truth and lies: Criminal justice myths uncovered

Rebecca Roberts calls for truth-telling and myth busting in criminal justice debates.

Jeffrey Reiman in his seminal text The rich get richer and the poor get prison (2007) eloquently describes criminal justice as offering a ‘carnival mirror’ image of reality.

First we are led to believe that the criminal justice system is protecting us against the gravest threats to our well-being when, in fact the system is protecting us against only some threats and not necessarily the gravest ones…. The second deception is… if people believe the carnival mirror is a true mirror…. they come to believe that whatever is the target of the criminal justice system must be the greatest threat to their well-being. (Reiman, 2007)

What Reiman argues is that criminal justice operates on the periphery of the most harmful threats in society. The media, politicians, academia – all take part with varying degrees of intent to direct our attention away from harms and crimes of the powerful.  Given recent economic, political and financial events, this message has a certain resonance. The accumulation of scandals around tax avoidance, bankers bonuses, police corruption has contributed towards a reawakening of the public consciousness about inequalities in power and wealth in society.

For those seeking to turn around our society’s over-reliance on criminal justice we need to offer serious challenges to the myths that dominate popular and political culture. Pioneers in the field of myth busting are Pepinsky and Jesilow who in 1984 published The Myths that Cause Crime. they outline ten myths – and 28 years after publication, still ring true;

  1. Crime is increasing
  2. Most crime is committed by the poor
  3. Some groups are more law abiding than others
  4. White collar crime is nonviolent
  5. Regulatory agencies prevent white collar crime
  6. Rich and poor are equal before the law
  7. Drug addiction causes crime
  8. Community corrections is a viable alternative
  9. The punishment can fit the crime
  10. Law makes people behave.

It is crucial to interrogate and challenge these myths – to shed light on injustice and question the status quo. We need to be bold in our critique and analysis – and confident in our ability to identify alternative ways of thinking about social problems and the steps we need to take to resolve them that do not rely on the myths and lies underpinning contemporary criminal justice.

Rebecca Roberts in Senior Associate at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. This is an edited version of an article published in Criminal Justice Matters in March 2011.

References:

  • Pepinsky, H. and Jesilow, P (1984) The myths that cause crime, Maryland: Seven Locks Press.
  • Reiman, J. (2007) the rich get richer and the poor get prison: Ideology, class and criminal justice, 8th edition, London: Pearson.

Discussion

One thought on “Truth and lies: Criminal justice myths uncovered

  1. Rebecca, I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, our present Home Secretary (like previous incumbents) will cite all these myths as ‘truth’ and will base legislation and policy upon them. Moreover, as an ex police officer gone academic native (and therefore despised by my former work colleagues) law enforcers believe this stuff too! That, sadly, is the scale of the challenge we face.

    Posted by Dr Nick Lynn | February 26, 2013, 11:16 am

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