Crime Control as Industry
I've had this book on my shelf for 10 years or so. I didn't throw it out because a friend who I very much respect gave it to me. But I also didn't read it because I am so sick and tired of the European superiority trip. A young man I met once is about to be sentenced to life in prison, so I opened Christie in the vague hope that there might be some uprightness and depth of insight to be found there. I was pleasantly surprised. This is not another book about how stupid America is and how Europe is so super qualified to fix everything.
Christie has thought deeply about the nature of crime, the function of the judicial in society and its relationship to different cultures and societal institutions. One senses that he has spent a lifetime coming to a point of clarity within himself about what the relevant parameters are by which to evaluate and understand a situation. There's no redundancy or fluff here. He has made every effort to present the material succinctly, clearly and objectively, but also humanely.
The basic premise, as I understand it, is this. The Holocaust in Germany and the Gulags of Eastern Europe are a natural outgrowth of the Western rational mindset. This mindset in essential ways governs how Western democracies increasingly think about crime and the judiciary. The increase in the number of prisoners per capita, which is especially obvious in the US, is not related to an increase in crime, and it is not about either rehabilitation or punishment. He shows this quite convincingly with statistics. Rather, he argues, it is about control of the populations within a society which are not `productive'. This, for example, is why there is such an emphasis on the drug war. The largest class of American incarcerations are drug related, hence not violent crimes and not crimes in which one person harms another.
By incarcerating these unpredictable groups of people, they are legally enslaved, and thereby incorporated into a silent industry -- that of the prison system -- which is very lucrative and productive, which in fact is big business. In fundamental respects, the modern Western prison system resembles the Gulags in their philosophy, mode of operation and function within society. Our system of government is based on checks and balances. The competition of the free market also imposes natural constraints on excesses. However, Christie sees no natural constraints which would impose checks on this development toward Gulag-style crime control within Western society. The economy, the political apparatus and the voice of the majority would all tend to increase it, rather than check it.
What Christie regards as the root of the problem is a disconnect between ordinary down home morality and common sense vs. the judiciary. He's not against capitalism or the rational mindset per se, but feels there are domains in which they do and don't serve the end of a good society. Village courts have their disadvantages, but when Curly in the musical Oklahoma is let off scot free for the murder of Judd, it's because the whole town knows what really went down. Instead of Oklahoma justice, we now have sentencing manuals. The jury is only allowed to decide whether or not the crime took place, and the legislature has taken away the judge's leeway over the sentencing. All the mitigating circumstances and even common sense must be ignored in the interest of a sort of managerial, rational justice, whose purpose is neither to rehabilitate the criminal nor to ease the life of the plaintiff, but merely to control unpredictable populations. The gowns of the judges are replaced by business suits. Courtrooms are appointed and arranged like conference rooms. And the machine churns away.
I don't agree with everything he says. For example, I believe the Founding Fathers did build in stop gaps against the tyranny of the masses, and I feel there are people who are simply mean. But Christie's book leaves the reader with a much deeper understanding of the problem and without any emotional manipulation, motivates the reader to want to do something about it.