american society, big ideas, politics, USA

What is a criminal?

There are certain things we always take for granted. Things we, at one time or another, decided that we understood well enough and didn’t need to worry about any more. We know what a dog is, we know what democracy is, we know what taxes are. But should we really accept this state? Can we really afford to accept it?

This is the story of something that happened to me about two months ago. I tell this story now, and I beg the related question, because I think it merits some consideration. First because, with a rising prison population, I think we need to seriously consider how we treat “criminals” in this country. Further, much of the rhetoric (from those opposing the compromise) on illegal immigration is that the 12 or 20 million illegal immigrants in this country are criminals. We’ll come back to this in a second.

First, I believe that it is great to have your mind periodically blown. It’s great to have something you’ve never really given a great deal of thought to suddenly make sense in a way it never did before. One of the first times I really remember having my mind blown like this was when I realized why they are called movies. Because “movie,” the precursors to “talkie,” was a simple explanation of what occurred. A movie moved. A talkie both moved and talked. We call them movies today because the talking has become requisite. Blew my mind once.

Most recently, this was done by a teacher of mine. He was talking to a student working for the county’s justice center. She was calling the people she worked with on a regular basis criminals, rather than clients, suggesting that they were different from herself and the other workers.

And he stopped her. He said that she shouldn’t be so willing to accept that dichotomy. The dichotomy of the “criminals” and the “good and law abiding.” Because the fact is that criminals are not people who break the law, “criminals” are people who are caught breaking the law and are prosecuted for it. He went on to ask who in that room had never broken the law.

No one, in a room filled with respectable looking college students, said they hadn’t. Each of us had sped, imbibed alcohol before our 21st birthday, taken other illicit substances, stolen or worse. And yet, to the traditional dichotomy, we were not criminals. Criminals were the people in prison. Criminals were the people that did things that we wouldn’t do. Never mind that over half the US prison population is serving time for drug possession, or a similarly mundane crime.

It struck me that this dichotomy exists only for the comfort of the “average, law-abiding” citizens. But is the average citizen really likely to abide by all laws? Should they really be able to castigate another as a “criminal”? For that person’s whole life?

It seems that we call people criminals so we don’t have to feel like we have an obligation to “criminals” as fellow citizens, as fellow human beings. So that we can just complain that we’re spending all this money “keeping us safe from criminals.” Keeping us safe from ourselves.

The destruction of this false dichotomy gives rise to a number questions. Can we really tolerate our heinously over-crowded prison system? What if the authorities decided that we, too, were criminals–we have probably broken the law at least once? Can we afford not to take steps to better the lives of our “criminals”? And to not help them avoid patterns of behavior that can and do often get them back to prison far too soon?

Can we really hold illegal immigrants in such great contempt? Are they really so different from “good, law abiding” citizens? After all, if all citizens and all (legal) resident aliens truly respected all the laws of our country, we would never ever break them. No one would ever break the speed limit. No one would ever drink before their 21st birthday. Take illicit drugs. Steal from Wal-Mart. Break into a building. Get in a fight. Drive under the influence. Kidnap or murder another. Steal their employees’ pension funds. We could close the police office, the sheriff’s department, the state patrol, and the FBI. But we can’t. The seeming absurdity of the thought emphasizes that fact.

If we citizens and legal immigrants of the United State break some laws, how can we be so angered that others do as well? Some will surely say that speeding or petty theft isn’t as severe as entering the country illegally. But by what measure? Why is what they are doing worse than what you have done? Because you didn’t do it? Because they’re breaking the law and not you?

I believe it was that man Jesus who said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” And I believe those who cling so hard to the “criminal” dichotomy on illegal immigration need to seriously consider the answer to that question. In fact, I believe we all need to consider the answer to this question.

What is a criminal?