Monday, November 19, 2007

Justice May Be Blind But Her System Is Not

A new report identifies that the rising rate of imprisonment in the U.S. has not resulted in a decline in the actual crime rate that many neo-conservative ideologues had predicted. The report "Unlocking America" also identifies that the massive expense that is incurred from this explosion of the prison population represents a significant burden on society. The U.S. has often considered itself a "law and order" society where revenge and justice are used in the same breath. Ideas of deterrence and paternalism inform the vast majority of our criminal policies. The linkages between the increased inequalities and hopelessness experienced by those who are born without is something that is often discarded as an important factor.

It is time for the U.S. to look to other models of justice that have found more success and attempt to create massive change. One significant barrier to any reform is the massive profit that is being made by the corporations that are building and running these new mega-prisons, as well as those industries (food, bedding, security) that are making an exorbitant profit from providing substandard services (in a parallel with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).

The outdated notion of "lock them up and throw away the key" clearly has not provided Americans with the level of security they desire. A more nuanced approach to sentencing and rehabilitation is necessary to provide real safety. The further polarization of wealthy Americans into gated communities and the poor into squalid decaying inner cities only exacerbates this crucial problem. A serious focus must be made to close the gaps between the richest and the poorest. This must also be coupled with substantive reforms to our democratic process that allows for a more inclusive civil society where more voices have a chance to be heard.

The prison problem is a prime example of the ideology of neo-conservativism being passed off as fact. There are many different options for punitive actions in a criminal justice system. In the U.S. only the most expensive and least supported (in terms of facilitating a safer society) in the empirical literature are utilized. Examples such as those currently used in Scandinavian countries can help us to start a dialogue and create substantive reform.

A further point that must be identified is the fact that in terms of costs "white collar crime" represents a significantly larger drain on society than violent crime does. Though those folks that commit this sort of crime are more likely to receive a slap on the wrist versus real substantive punishment. When the quality of the lawyer is one of the main determinants of a persons chance of getting a fair trial, our justice system cannot be called just. The fact that crimes committed by the poor are those that are labeled a "social problem" just shows the complete bias and unobjective nature with which prosecutions are handed out. Those who cannot afford to pay for a good lawyer get a public defender, one of the most overworked and underpaid jobs. This vast discrepancy in quality of trial is just a further indication of the inequitable system under which we live.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Social Problems Require A Social Solution

A recent report from the UK finds that obesity is not the individual problem that most people seem to think. Instead, social factors appear to play a larger role in determining whether or not someone becomes obese. For someone in sociology this seems reasonable, but for those not familiar with the field it may be hard to understand how social forces can create social problems.

Some will still argue that it is an individual's "choice" and responsibility to control and regulate themselves. This atomistic view of the world misses the way in which our choices and ideas are constrained by the social world in which we live. For example, energy dense foods (e.g. fast food) that are cheap and available to the poor are more likely to lead to obesity than more nutrient dense food (e.g. fresh fruits and vegetables). While many would say that this just means that the poor need to "make better choices," the fact that these findings show a clear pattern by sociodemographic factors indicate that ideas of choice and responsibility are not sufficiently nuanced to get at the reasons for difference.

Societal factors such as sedentary lifestyle, energy saving devices, automobility, and energy dense cheap foods are all on the rise. Social problems require social solutions and this report just highlights this. A considered response is necessary to combat this problem. It is important to identify and attempt to work on structural factors and not just the symptoms. Issues of consumerism and excess consumption must be examined along with things such as education. We also must come to hold corporations more accountable for their actions and products. Simply providing the nutritional information of the products is not sufficient. It is true that people have the ability to decide what they are consuming. The fact that it is often easier to consume something fast and unhealthy than something self-prepared and nutritious shows a failure of the market to provide adequate alternatives.