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
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
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 –
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
They won’t let me join the welfare line.
I Guess I’m gonna die just like I’m living --
There’s a war on poverty. They say the war’s
All it means people – They trying hard to keep
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”
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
(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
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
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
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.”
Bland, Bobby “Blue” “Poverty” Epic Records, 1967
Burr, John R. and Milton Goldinger, “Philosophy and
(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 &