PARTHENIA ONASSIS GRANT, Ph.D.
aka Ruthie O. Grant, Ph.D.

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Is The Criminal Solely Responsible for His Crime?

Ruthie Grant, Ph.D.

Clarence Darrow in his Address Delivered to the Prisoners in the Chicago County Jail, presents a convincing argument for the complicity of society with the criminal.  In essence, Darrow believes that when one man steals from another, the community is as culpable as the criminal, since no man who “already had plenty of money in his own pocket” (82) would risk his life and liberty to rob or steal from another.  According to Darrow, the root of the problem lies in poverty and the hoarding of wealth by a handful of people who become rich by exploiting the poor through cheap labor, or by appealing to their vices. 

It is interesting to note that during hard times crime increases.  Particularly, periods of high inflation, or unusually cold winters.  That’s when people cannot afford to pay high heating bills.  Faced with no choices and an adverse situation, criminals literally “break into jail” (82) because it is better than being on the outside.  Case in point: homeless people.  I saw a homeless man in downtown LA, with a hospital band on his arm, deliberately provoke a security guard into calling the police.  After the police arrived, the homeless man calmed down and quietly entered the squad car, cordially waving at the security guard.  It was a cold rainy day.  Clearly the homeless guy found L. A. County Jail preferable to the streets. 

Another example involves habitual criminals who become “institutionalized.”  This point was poignantly dramatized in the movie Shawshank Redemption. The character played by Morgan Freeman contemplated suicide after release from prison because he had been institutionalized for so long that he no longer had coping skills for the outside world.  That is, until offered a real “chance to live” (83) by his fellow inmate, who had escaped with enough money hidden for both of them to live a good life on the outside.

Darrow believes that “everyone makes his living along the lines of least resistance” (84).  For example, he emphasized that “kidnapping children is not a crime, it is a profession” and that kidnappers do not take children because “they want the children or because they are devilish, but because they see a chance to get some money out of it” (83).  The cure for such ills, according to Darrow, is to “give the people a chance to live” because if “every man, woman and child in the world had a chance to make a decent, fair, honest living, there would be no jails, and no lawyers” (83).

The apathy, hopelessness and resignation of the poor is clearly described in the following blues song titled “Poverty” by Bobby “Blue” Bland.  This tune was a popular refrain during the 60’s.

Up every morning with the sun/I work all day till the evening comes.

            Blisters and corns all in my hands/Lord have mercy on a working man.

            I Guess I’m gonna die just like I’m living - in poverty.

            My pay goes down and the tax goes up/I drink my tea from a broken cup.

Between my woman and Uncle Sam, I can’t figure out whose fool I am.

I guess I’m gonna die just like I’m living – in poverty.

            Oh Lord it’s so hard, but it’s fair/Everybody talks, but nobody really cares.

Can’t save a dime, can’t borrow one cent/If I pay my bills I can’t pay my rent.

The old lady’s fussing and the kids are crying. 

They won’t let me join the welfare line.

I Guess I’m gonna die just like I’m living -- in poverty. 

There’s a war on poverty.  They say the war’s going around. 

All it means people – They trying hard to keep you down.

 

            Unfortunately, most poor people do not have the information, education or means to take the high road out of the ghetto.  As a result, they end up living lives of “quiet desperation” that poets write about.  The poverty mentality described in Bobby Bland’s song is a luckless legacy passed down from generation to generation by people who settle for less because they don’t know any better or can’t do any better.  Many choose to become criminals because that profession is familiar, or because that is all that they have been taught.  It is interesting to note, however, the case of deportees from England: criminals, debtors, and indentured servants sent to America (many of whom settled in the state of Georgia) and Australia.  Once they had enough land and freedom to raise their own food and livestock “these criminals then became decent, respectable people because they had a chance to live” (83). 

Another case in point is the lasting popularity of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. This story exemplifies what can happen when a criminal is given a new lease on life.  The success of this Broadway play/film can be attributed to the fact that viewers identify with the main character’s motive for stealing: hunger.   Pure and simple.  In addition, they are moved by his atonement, and later inspired by his financial success, which prompts them to pull for his escape from the relentless prison guard/detective who does not understand the spirit of the law, only the letter of it.  

The thief in Hugo’s story was given a chance to live through the unconditional love and generosity of a priest, whom the thief stole from after he was given sanctuary in the priest’s home.  Instead of sending the criminal back to prison, however, the priest awarded the thief with the same silver candlesticks that he stole.  This gift of love, redemption, and financial means, allowed the thief to create a new life, which dramatizes Russell’s point about prisoners reforming themselves once they are given the means and opportunity to do so.

 Even though Russell only touched upon crimes against persons, I felt it worthy of further consideration in this paper.  In her book “For Your Own Good,” Swiss psychologist, Alice Miller, links hidden cruelty in child rearing to the roots of violence.  Miller’s case studies reveal that children who undergo what she calls “soul murder” either:

(a)     Act out their anger against society through anti-social rebellious behavior that lands them in trouble with authorities (who represent parental figures whom they are trying to punish or shame by their bad behavior);

(b)    Turn their anger inward and suppress it, creating mental, physical or emotional illnesses (depression is common, so is promiscuous behavior since it injures the individual’s self-esteem); or

(c)  Commit violent acts of rape or murder against individuals. With each act of violence the adult, in his mind, is now murdering or violating the powerful adult figure that he loved, relied upon, or trusted, but could not retaliate against, nor protect himself from as a child.  

Moreover, statistics bear out that the poor, who are stressed out by the poverty of their circumstances, tend to have the highest rate of child abuse.  In addition, the economically deprived also have the lowest level of education and training in child rearing.  Again, money could mitigate the harm done to children during childhood by alleviating some of the stress that poor parents are under trying to raise children without adequate means and little help.     

Darrow’s views, regarding the complicity of society and the criminal, mirrors that of Kahlil Gibran in his book The Prophet in the chapter “Crime and Punishment” wherein Gibran points out that:

The righteous is not innocent of the deeds of the wicked, and the white-handed is not clean in the doings of the felon.  Yea, the guilty is oftentimes the victim of the injured, and still more often the condemned is the burden-bearer for the guiltless and unblamed. 

You cannot separate the just from the unjust and the good from the wicked; for they stand together before the face of the sun even as the black thread and the white are woven together.  And when the black thread breaks, the weaver shall look into the whole cloth, and he shall examine the loom as well.  (45) 

A society of “Have’s” and “Have-Nots” sets up an adversarial relationship between the two groups.  Particularly when the rich keep the bulk of the wealth for themselves, leaving the masses to fight over what little is left.  To add insult to injury, those in power often fail to play fairly.  They will bend the rules in their favor or load the dice, forcing the unfortunate to lose by default.  Not surprisingly, in retaliation, oppressed people eventually rise up against unfairness and injustice, taking the law into their own hands.  At this crossroad, a regular citizen turns into a criminal, compelled by circumstances to take the low road.  In due time, victimized individuals, turned criminals, end up in jail because they cannot afford a competent lawyer to defend them.  In fact, Darrow believes that there is no such thing as justice for the poor, injured or innocent.  Justice belongs to the man who can afford to pay for it. 

Furthermore, the rich are given the means to commit white collar crimes that rarely land them in jail since the wealthy and powerful, like “Mr. Rockefeller [have] a great deal better hold-up game” than robbing people on the streets and putting their lives at risk (82).  After all, big businessmen, like the Rockefellers, are given a license to extort and steal under the guise of “Free Enterprise.”  Moreover, the rich can afford to lobby and pay to implement laws designed to keep them rich and the poor poorer.  Add to that, politicians who use drugs and crime as a platform for election campaigns, focusing media attention on building more prisons, creating tougher prison sentences (i.e. California’s Three Strike Rule), and denying parole to convicted criminals, and you’ve got a no win situation for the economically disadvantaged. 

It is interesting to note that blatantly missing from political campaigns are platforms for treating the root of crime, or for coming up with a viable plan for redistributing the tremendous wealth of the world, which has always been in the hands of a powerful hand full.  The extraordinary sense of entitlement of the rich allows them to hoard, while their guilt and fear compel them to protect their property at all costs.  Including taking the life or limb of a fellow human being.

For example, during the Los Angeles Riots, I was appalled when the media applauded business owners who stood on the roof of their stores with sniper rifles poised to shoot looters.   Watching that scene removed all doubt as to what Americans value most.   In fact, the moral dilemma of those snipers on top of their stores with a license to kill could not be missed by anyone willing to face the truth: In this country, human life takes a backseat to property value.  After all, America’s most cherished Constitutional right is not freedom of speech, but the “right to bear arms.”   Lawmakers and the wealthy will never abolish firearms because they’ve got to protect their goods.  Moreover, the average American is afraid that if fire arms are abolished, the poor will figure out a way to obtain them and create a revolution to even the playing field, as the masses have been known to do when things get bad enough.  This is exactly what the African American community did during the Los Angeles riots.  They rose up in a rage against police brutality and the inequity of the legal system.  Everyone kept talking about blacks destroying their own businesses.  But a close look at the burned out buildings in South Central revealed that residents burned and looted Asian and Anglo owned businesses whose exploitation, irreverence of, and contempt for African Americans on their home turf had reached a saturation level.   Stores with “Black Owned” signs in the window were not looted or burned. 

Gibran again offers food for thought regarding whether it is necessary to punish someone who is already grieved by a mistake or wrong action.  A case that comes to mind is a mother tried for the negligent death of her toddler who did not have on a seat belt during a car accident.  Wasn’t losing her child punishment enough?  Would a day ever go by where she did not damn herself for not checking to see if the child had undone the seat belt?   Another case is the mother who was tried for the death of her overweight adolescent who ate herself to death.  Was the mother at fault for not being able to police or monitor her child’s eating habits while the she was at work or sleeping?  Should she have put locks on the refrigerator doors and cabinets?  And if she had, would she then have been tried for child abuse?  Gibran asks: 

How shall you punish those whose remorse is already greater than his misdeeds?  Is not remorse the justice which is administered by that very law which you would fain serve?  Yet you cannot lay remorse upon the innocent nor lift it from the heart of the guilty. Unbidden shall it call in the night, that men may wake and gaze upon themselves.

And you who would understand justice, how shall you unless you look upon all deeds in the fullness of light?  Only then shall you know that the erect and the fallen are but one man standing in twilight between the night of his pigmy-self and the day of his god-self.  And that the corner-stone of the temple is not higher than the lowest stone in its foundation” (46-47).

In the title to this paper I ask the question: Is the Criminal Solely Responsible for his Crime? My answer to that question is: “I think not.”  There is much truth in the maxim “No man is an island.  No man stands alone.  Each man is my brother.  Each man is my friend.”

WORKS CITED

Bland, Bobby “Blue” “Poverty” Epic Records, 1967

Burr, John R. and Milton Goldinger, “Philosophy and Contemporary Issues

(Prentice Hall) 1995.

Gibran, Kahlil “The Prophet” (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.) 1997. Pages 42-47.

Hugo, Victor “Les Miserables”

Miller, Alice “For Your Own Good” (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux) 1990.

 


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