At the moment I’m currently reading Power, Crime and Mystification by Steven Box. It’s a book all to do with State and Corporate crimes, and has so far been an interesting read. What I wish to comment here is on something I’ve reflected upon in my Draft Principles of a Marxist Criminology, which he considers in the first chapter of the book.
Why are some behaviours criminalised and others not? This has been a fairly central question in criminology. Box discusses some of the ideas why this is so. He first picks up on the view that criminal law is a tool of the ruling class and thus flowing from that – what is criminalised are ‘…problem populations perceived by the powerful to be potentially or actually threatening the existing distribution of power, wealth and privilege.’(pg.7)
But as Box notes, this isn’t the whole story – as I have previously commentated it is not the case that ‘…all criminal laws directly express the interests of one particular group, such as the ruling class. Clearly some legislation reflects temporary victories of one interest or allied interest groups over others, and none of these may be identical or coincide with the interests of the ruling class’, however, Box also argues that ‘…these victories are short lived. Powerful groups have ways and means of clawing back the spoils of tactical defeats.’(pg.8)
Box also notes that in a sense many laws are ‘in all our interests’ as nobody wants to be a victim of serious crime. However, Box notes this is not the whole picture. Taking murder – he points out that this basically is avoidable killings. However, there are many other types of avoidable killing – such as unsafe working conditions etc. As Box notes ‘We are encouraged to see murder as a particular act involving a very limited range of stereotypical actors, instruments, situations, and motives. Other types of avoidable killing are either defined as a less serious crime than murder, or as matters more appropriate for administrative or civil proceedings…’(pg.9) As Box goes on to note, the people who commit legally defined murder are usually poorer and less powerful than those who commit mere avoidable killings.
He goes onto show how this relates to theft, sexual crimes, assault and terrorism and concludes ‘Thus criminal laws against murder, rape, robbery, and assault do protect us all, but they do not protect us equally.’(pg.11) I’m inclined to agree with Box, in the conclusions he draws as a consequence of this operation of the criminal law, which are
1) Less privileged people are more likely to be arrested and punished
2) The illusion is created that those people are also the most dangerous in society
3) It helps disguise the fact that the powerful create the conditions for the offending of the powerless
4) It makes the criminal justice system look like a neutral arbiter –above everything.
5) Makes people dependent on the criminal justice system and hence the state for protection, even though this body is likely to make the problems worse
The only thing I don’t like is the looseness of the terms powerful, powerless and privileged, but the general thrust of this I think is in line with things I have commented on previously.
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