Tag Archives: Sociology

Jeffrey Reiman – …And the Poor Get Prison

...And the Poor Get Prison: Economic Bias in American Criminal Justice

Jeffrey Reiman…And the Poor Get Prison: Economic Bias in American Criminal Justice (Allyn and Bacon, 1996)

Jeffrey Reiman’s …And the Poor Get Prison: Economic Bias in American Criminal Justice is a 1996 edition of a book first published in 1979 and republished in revised editions through the eleventh edition in 2016 (most under the title The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice).  Paul Leighton became a co-author on later editions.  The book is intended primarily for use as a textbook for college-level criminal justice coursework.  But it remains readable for general audiences as well.  This review addresses an edition now over twenty years old, and does not compare either newer or older edition.

In short, this book presents an outstanding critique of the ideology behind American criminal justice, concluding that the system and its institutions are biased against the poor.  What is most commendable about the book is that it is structured in a logical and coherent way, it provides citations and evidence for every one of its arguments, and it responds to typical counter-arguments.  In other words, rather than a polemic that simply asserts its thesis without testing it, or attempting to side-step normative moral and political judgments behind technocratic language, the book attempts to ground and defend its positions in an explicitly materialist way.  While it would be fair to say that not every individual argument in the book is well-taken, be it due to outdated or incomplete statistical information or something else, the overwhelming majority of what is presented is supported by both coherent theory and some type of empirical data.

The normative positions taken by Reiman are ultimately defended on moral terms, rather than on a “mistaken facts” basis.  In other words, he does not fall back on the weak justification that things would change if only people knew what the facts really were.  The saying from the total quality improvement discipline, that every system is perfectly designed for the results it currently achieves, fits perfectly into Reiman’s analysis.  Indeed, he mentions teaching a class in which he asked his students a question: how would they design a criminal justice system so that it “would maintain and encourage a stable and visible ‘class’ of criminals.”  The students indicated that it would look pretty much like the current American criminal justice system.

As Alex S. Vitale writes in a more recent book, The End of Policing, “Powerful political forces benefit from abusive, aggressive, and invasive policing, and they are not going to be won over or driven from power by technical arguments or heartfelt appeals to do the right thing.”  Reiman recognizes this too.  In this edition of his book, he alludes to this problem.  His goal is not to outline a specific political problem to address it in a particular way, but rather to detail the set of interrelated problems that justify a significant political intervention of some sort.

Reiman establishes a few points that should, now at least, be considered incontrovertible:

“1. Society fails to protect people from the crimes they fear by refusing to alleviate the poverty that breeds them . . .

“2. The criminal justice system fails to protect people from the most serious dangers by failing to define the dangerous acts of those who are well off as crimes . . . and by failing to enforce the law vigorously against the well-to-do when they commit acts that are defined as crimes . . .

“3. By virtue of these and other failiures, the criminal justice system succeeds in creating the image that crime is almost exclusively the work of the poor, an image that serves the interests of the powerful . . . .”

In the details, Reiman admirably explains how bias in upstream aspects of criminal justice are more damaging.  For instance, legislation that exempts the actions of the rich from the definition of “crime” means that the rich never enter the criminal justice system, and sentencing fairness is therefore irrelevant to them.  While bias in downstream events like sentencing do matter, by that stage most of the rich have been filtered out of the system.  A key point here is prosecutorial discretion.  Reiman notes how it remains an opaque process rife with opportunities for bias that have been restricted in other areas.

There are a few flaws in this edition.  For instance, Reiman argues that his “Pyrrhic Defeat” theory is not a “conspiracy theory”.  But this is somewhat a strawman argument, with Reiman applying an unduly narrow criminal law definition of “conspiracy”.  It also overlooks a similar sort of middle-ground position like the “propaganda model” of mass media put forward by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, which emphasizes the reinforcement and reproduction of an ideological system while also suggesting causal intent, or the psychoanalytic concept of denial/disavowal/Verleugnung, in which denying something that affects an individual is actually a way of affirming what he or she is apparently denying.  Indeed, Reiman’s focus on the criminal justice system as such means he only discusses mass media complicity in passing, which seems like too little treatment.  Additionally, Reiman makes a conservative argument about gun control that is contrary (i.e., non-materialist) to his other arguments, and counterfactual.  More recent evidence suggests that banning firearms will not reduce murder or suicide, directly contradicting Reiman’s claims.  And lastly, Reiman concludes the book with some suggestions to make the criminal justice system minimally morally defensible.  What is interesting here is that Reiman abandons the materialistic critique that grounded the entire book to that point and instead justifies his policy recommendations based on an entirely different foundation, namely that of center-left liberalism.  He cites the likes of John Rawls and John Stuart Mill.  While Reiman uses this approach because he seeks only to suggest the minimum necessary moral reforms, not the best possible reforms, his abrupt abandonment of a materialist philosophy renders the basis for these suggestions incompatible with his overall critique.  With the exception of of the “gun control” position, which is not defensible, everything else is sort of unobjectionable, even if it comes across as kind of arbitrary as presented.

On the whole, this is a wonderful book.  It makes an essential introduction to the operation of the American criminal justice system, and provides a durable critique of its most fundamental moral flaws.

Academic Incentives

One thing I’ve noted through the years is that there is a rough divide in academia between theory and observation.  Actually, this is a pretty commonplace observation.  What is less discussed, though, is the sort of hierarchy of prestige that tends to place theory above observation.  Of course, there are exceptions, and unconventional theories often have to do both theory and observation in order to gain any recognition.

One sad byproduct of all this is that academics tend to cluster in tribes, and often recreate pre-existing theory under new names.  Why?  Well, because theory is more prestigious than observation!  Take an example.  “Einstein” is a household name.  Why?  Because Albert Einstein developed the theory of relativity in physics.  But could you name someone (and there are many names here) whose observations confirmed Einstein’s theory?  Probably not.  If there was more parity between theory and observation, academics would probably be more willing to conduct observation according to existing theory, rather than constantly trying to posit an influential “new” theory that may disregard existing theory in a completely self-aggrandizing way.

There also is relatively little ground for synthesis of different theories.  Academics tend to have “departments” in universities and other institutions, and inter-disciplinary efforts are difficult in such an environment, on top of the difficulties trying to integrate theories within a given discipline.

Add to this the problem of ideology, in that, practically speaking, most social science theorists pick out a desired solution — what they want society to look like — and then conjure up a theory that points toward that desired solution, without spending much if any time making explicit their desired solution.  Put another way, many social science academics actually spend most of their time making sales pitches for their pet solutions, rather than constructing theories, testing them, and only then devising suitable solutions to theoretically verified root causes of problems.  That isn’t to say such an approach is inherently wrong, but those who deny doing that should be viewed skeptically — as ideologues not “scientists” or “academics”.

I think a radical solution to much of this would be to disallow name attribution on scientific and academic work. After all, is it really about the work itself, in its “objective” advancements, or about accumulating social and cultural capital?

Alex Vitale – Police and the Liberal Fantasy

Link to an article excerpted from the book The End of Policing by Alex Vitale:

“Police and the Liberal Fantasy”


Bonus links: Review and “The Left Hand and the Right Hand of the State” and “Stop Kidding Yourself: The Police Were Created to Control Working Class and Poor People” and “Policing Class” and Punishing the Poor and The Fabrication of Social Order: A Critical Theory of Police Power and The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison

Douglas Allen & Paul Anderson – Consumption and Social Stratification

Link to an article by Douglas E. Allen and Paul F. Anderson:

Douglas E. Allen and Paul F. Anderson, “Consumption and Social Stratification: Bourdieu’s Distinction”, Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 70-74 (C. Allen and D. Roedder John, eds.,  Association for Consumer Research, 1994).

Selected quote:

[Pierre] Bourdieu sees the consumption field as a site of struggle over the definitions of legitimate, middlebrow, and popular culture. In his view, the socially and economically dominant in any society seek to maintain a strict hierarchy of cultural forms so that all judgments in the consumption sphere are subject to the hegemony of ‘legitimate’ (i.e., dominant) cultural tastes. This is accomplished without conscious direction or coercion because a person’s class habitus presents each individual with a preexisting set of ‘natural’ classifications that constitute his or her unreflective definition of reality. Thus, in western industrialized societies, classical music, opera, legitimate theater, books on philosophy, knowledge of foreign languages, modern art collections, and subscriptions to academic journals are just a few of the cultural forms that are unquestionably (and unquestioned) elements of the legitimate or dominant culture. While members of the middle and working classes may eschew such cultural forms (indeed, they may well view them with suspicion or disdain), their position at the pinnacle of the cultural hierarchy goes unchallenged. As a result, those who can appropriate elements of legitimate culture as their own have the power to define the status of all other cultural forms.


“For Bourdieu, the singular mistake made by dominated class fractions, particularly the petite bourgeoisie, is to associate culture with knowledge. Lacking the lived experiences that produce the elite habitus, the petite bourgeoisie misrecognize what are essentially arbitrary aesthetic selections for special knowledge of what counts as ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ in the cultural sphere.”