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Feinman: 'Crime' is only what we want it to be

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Feinman: 'Crime' is only what we want it to be

  • Paul Ingram/

Joel Feinman heads the Pima County Public Defender's Office.

Over the last 50 years the United States has become the greatest jailer in the history of the world. We have accomplished this by prosecuting poor people and calling it "crime prevention and control."

The idea only criminals are arrested and indicted and only innocence people walk free is a fiction.

"Crime" is a subjective social construct and the people we choose to arrest and imprison are rarely the greatest threats to public safety and well-being, but all-too-often specific economic, social, and racial communities who threaten the status quo. What we define as "crime" is not synonymous with objective pain and loss; there is no direct relationship between the acts we prosecute and the harm those acts cause.

Steal a car and you are likely to be arrested and prosecuted. Bankrupt 100,000 families and you may not even lose your job. We don't prosecute rich people who kill millions and steal billions - we prosecute poor people who kill once, and steal hundreds.

According to the FBI, in 2019 property crimes such as shoplifting, home burglary, and auto theft resulted in $15.8 billion in economic losses. About 30% of adults in U.S. prisons are there for property crimes and robbery.

During the 2008 financial crisis widespread fraud, bribery, and forgery caused Americans to lose $648 billion in income, $3.4 trillion in home value wealth, and $7.4 trillion in stock wealth - crimes which likely would have collapsed the global economy if the federal government had not printed money to recoup losses.

As a consequence of this, the largest financial crime in history, one Wall Street executive was convicted and jailed for 30 months.

The FBI estimates 14,000 - 17,500 Americans are murdered each year. 200,000 people are in U.S. prisons for committing murder. U.S-led forces have killed approximately 17,000 civilians since the 2003 invasion of Iraq (a very conservative estimate). The American government prosecuted less than one dozen people for murdering Iraqi civilians.

Exxon Mobil knew as early as 1977 that fossil-fuel emissions cause climate change, which has already led to untold death and suffering and could well end civilization as we know it.

Not one Exxon executive need fear prosecution while we slouch towards Bethlehem.

"Tough on crime" and "protecting public safety" are vacuous phrases. Our system is only tough on people who steal certain things, and look certain ways.

We prosecute poor black and brown and native people for firing guns all day every day, but we don't bother even arresting rich, white judges who do the same thing.

Whether we protect people as "victims" or vilify them as "defendants" is often, like treason, simply a matter of dates. The 23-year-old woman we will arrest tomorrow for selling drugs was also the victim of domestic violence last month, and the victim of sexual abuse when she was a child.

If we ever actually cared about her victimhood and trauma it was only before she was handcuffed; now we just care about "holding her accountable" and "keeping her off the streets." The moment we dress her in an orange jumpsuit she is no longer a victim but a criminal, someone we can discard with a clear conscience.

And if she happens to be beaten or raped or denied decent food and health care in a prison which would violate the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War?

Well, if she can't handle the time she shouldn't have done the crime.

We cannot claim to be a nation of laws as long as people who kill thousands and steal billions do so with impunity.

We will not have true criminal justice until our laws are applied fairly and equally, across all classes and genders and ethnicities.

This is what the Constitution requires, and they are values we claim to venerate every July 4. It is past time our actions match our words.

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