Mass Incarceration, Legitimacy and the DMV


Did you know that the state of California imprisons more people than do the nations of France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore and the Netherlands combined? We have 2.3 million people behind bars in this country. That is 25 percent of the total number of persons imprisoned worldwide. By contrast, the population of the United States constitutes five percent of the world's population.

There is something seriously wrong with these numbers. We call our selves the land of the free, and then we imprison more people per capita than any other nation. Nowhere does the rhetoric and reality of American life collide quite so violently as it does in the criminal justice system.

I was thinking about that this week as I stood on line at the Department of Motor Vehicle to renew my expired car registration. Three white, middle-aged and prosperous looking folks were standing within ear shot. The woman had just purchased a used Mercedes Benz convertible. It was a dream to drive and ride in, she told the admiring listeners.

Talk then turned to how much she paid for it. It was a bargain, she reported: She paid $10,000. She wondered how much she would have to pay in taxes on the car as she thought the car was more likely worth close to $20,000.

"For cars of that age, the DMV simply accepts your estimate of value," one man said. "You don't need to report the actual amount you paid and pay all that tax on the sale."

This struck the woman as a revelation. Her reaction surprised me. Here were three apparently prosperous Americans openly discussing tax fraud in a public place, conceivably within earshot of regulatory personnel manning the counters of the DMV. They assumed that cheating on taxes was all right, so long as you don't get caught, of course. In other words, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with tax fraud, so long as you can avoid the consequences: the found it morally acceptable to cheat but pragmatically undesirable to get caught cheating.

A sense of legitimacy is the glue that holds a civil society together.  Without legitimacy, a sense of fairness among free and equal people, there is really no meaningful social cooperation. Does the high incarceration rate in the United States reflect a legitimation crisis?

I think it may well. There are simply too many criminal laws. No one knows just how many criminal laws circumscribe the conduct of any of us at the state and federal levels. Prosecutors have broad discretion to charge or not on a bewildering range of offenses: I read recently that two lobstermen are now serving lengthy federal sentences for importing shell fish in Central America in plastic bags rather than boxes. We put people in prison for that?

Our penal code fails miserable when it comes to race, drugs and sex offenses. A young black man in the United States has a one in three chance of imprisonment during the course of his lifetime, as opposed to a six percent chance for a white male. We incarcerate folks sometimes for life for selling narcotics, but permit alcohol and nicotine to be pedaled without consequence. We make it a crime for young people to fall in love. For far too many Americans the criminal law is a foreign curse, a plague that falls upon them much like cancer and must be endured as a state-sanctioned illness. Over criminalization breeds a crisis in legitimacy.

What is amazing is that we are doing this to ourselves. Rather than fighting back and asking questions, jurors far too often make decisions about people without demanding answers about what the consequences of their verdicts will be. We've gone mad, really. We incarcerate more and more Americans for more and more prohibited acts, and we don't even ask why. Perhaps that's why folks chat freely about cheating on their taxes in public places. If government is simply a curse, a necessary illness much like a fall cold, then doesn't it make sense to swap remedies whenever possible with fellow sufferers?

Comments: (4)

  • From my experiences in the civil and criminal just...
    From my experiences in the civil and criminal justice systems as a pro se plaintiff and defendant, I've seen that law--the application of it, at any rate--has more to do with sociology than fundamental legal principles or impartiality. I can see this in statistics such as Pattis relates--and I've also seen it in state's attorneys' attempts to entrap me for what they regarded as my "crime" of filing a criminal complaint against corporate attorneys supported by six or more pages of unassailable evidence.
    Single, male, and with a modest income, I was a favorite target for law enforcement using sociological guidelines as they do. They tried--and tried and tried--to entrap me for drug and/or sex crimes. I fit the profile they use and by which they convict countless individuals (but only rarely corporate lawyers or other affluent, well-positioned types) to be sent to prison.
    Single, male, modest income. I fit the profile. Add black and young, and I was a dead ringer for an assumed drug and/or sex criminal. The way I look at it, three out of five attributes on the law-enforcement sociological profile for a criminal is close enough for government work. In my case, on with the illegal wiretap, forward with the entrapment incidents--then eventully full-court witness intimidation including serious threats. And oh...don't let me forget that I live in a mixed-race, middle-class/working-class neighborhood. The way the state's attorneys look at it, if anyone should be in jail, I should.
    Posted on July 31, 2010 at 5:21 am by Henry Berry
  • I think that Americans' contempt for taxes and com...
    I think that Americans' contempt for taxes and complete willingness to avoid them by methods legal or illegal has more to do with the collective feeling that tax collection has become more of a game. It is known and accepted that so many loopholes exist for corporate entities and that high paid lawyers and accountants are employed solely for the purpose of determining precisely how close they can get to the line in order to pay the least amount of money to the government possible. I think most individuals feel like the government is entitled only to that which it can figure out and that obfuscation and even fraudulent misrepresentation as to what that figure is is perfectly fine, so long as you don't get caught.
    Posted on July 31, 2010 at 5:51 am by Lee Stonum
  • If I were black, I'd be Nation of Islam. I honest...
    If I were black, I'd be Nation of Islam. I honestly can't understand why blacks aren't more racist.
    The social contract only applies when people treat each other with good faith. There isn't any good faith being applied to numerous parties - especially blacks.
    More broadly: I wonder how much longer the Middle Class will continue following the laws.
    Posted on July 31, 2010 at 12:49 pm by Mike
  • You are getting close to hitting the nail on the h...
    You are getting close to hitting the nail on the head. BadaBing! Things are so bad, it's hard to figure out what the exit strategy might be, or when or how we turn this thing around? As a victim of the criminal 'justice' system--CT style--I hardly know where to begin or what to say myself. We have spoken, we have marched, we have called, we have e-mailed, we have written, we have blogged,...and nothing. It is truly bizarre. It's weird. It's incomprehensible. It is UnConstitutional. What more can I (we) say?
    I still have faith in the system, but not a whole lot. What is the alternative? Russia? China? Afghanistan? Pakistan? Saudia Arabia? I had the privilege of watching Sen. Jeff Sessions call into question the qualifications of Judge Robert N. Chatigny to serve on the 2nd Circuit (filling Sonia SootyMayor's place) yesterday afternoon on C-Span, on the floor of the Senate, Fri. the 30th.
    Thank you Sen. Sessions for performing your duty of 'advise and consent' sincerely and appropriately. I think the vote was tabled, or postponed, as it should be. Judge Chatigny is not qualified to judge the Westminster Dog Show, as previously posted by me. Instead of being promoted to his penultimate level of incompetence, this moron should be impeached for 'high crimes and misdemeanors' committed against honest, hard-working, loyal citizens of CT.
    If ever there was a nominee to the federal appeals court who deserved to be 'Borked', it is Wounded Shot-Knee, the federal judge in CT who knows no remorse.
    Yes, I did e-mail the senator these sentiments. Yes, 1/4 my heritage is Alabama, and am not ashamed to admit it. Go.... what's their mascot down there? Rednecks? Better a red neck than a blue-necked coward and a wimp hiding behind sheep's clothing. Grandma, what big teeth you have!
    Posted on July 31, 2010 at 1:50 pm by William Doriss

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