Sometimes I wonder if I stray too far from the core purpose of this blog which is, after all, examining the “resilient constructs” we encounter in our lives. But this is a topic that, I think, drives at the heart of what this blog is about.
The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. There are a number of reasons for this, but the simple explanation is that, as a culture, we have a more punitive view of human behavior. We lock more people up because we have a particular willingness to do so. Politicians must, at all times, prove they are “tough on crime”–to advocate on behalf of criminals is to bring suspicion upon yourself.
The US also has relatively high rates of crime compared to its international peers. Another way to say this is that, as much as we are more likely to put people in prison, we’re also more likely to be the victims of crimes.
In the year of Donald Trump, many Americans believe that we are facing a crisis of epic proportions–that the country is coming apart at the seams, under threat by all manner of criminals and evildoers. The truth is that our crime rates, while still comparatively high, have dropped dramatically since peaking in the early 1990s. The trends are heading in the right direction, and even incarceration rates are on the decline.
But there still a significant problem in our approach to criminal justice that informs many of the mistakes we make in pursuing it. I am talking about the idea of perfect criminals and perfect victims.
They obviously aren’t the same concept, but they mutually inform one another. A perfect criminal is pure evil–irredeemable, inhuman, monstrous. A perfect victim is completely innocent, blameless, pure, and in need of protection. We are comfortable with these concepts. When a perfect criminal harms a perfect victim, justice can be served. We can rest easy knowing that the victim got justice and the bad guy got put away.
Reality, as always, must interfere with its troublesome complexity. And what we conceive of as perfect criminals and victims denies just outcomes for both. For instance, all-white juries are more likely to convict black defendants than juries with even a single black juror. This doesn’t have to be because white jurors are deliberately handing down racist verdicts. It can just as easily be because, to white jurors, a black defendant fits with our preconceived notion of a perfect criminal. We are automatically more sympathetic to accused white people–as if sharing our skin color is a sign of innocence. Broadly, this is because law-abiding citizens tend not to think of themselves as criminals–the criminal is another class of person entirely. Alien. Other. Something not human. When this mentality intersects with people ensconced in a racist system, the outcomes are unsurprisingly slanted, as well.
The point of the perfect criminal construct, then, is that the less the accused is “like us,” the more likely it is we think he or she is guilty, regardless of evidence pertinent to the crime at hand. We have socially-ingrained ideas of what criminals are like–usually large, scary men, often non-white, likely from a poor and uneducated background, perhaps with tattoos and piercings, and intimidating expressions. Individuals who align with these stereotypes are more likely to be found guilty, and the more disjoint one is from the stereotypes, the more likely they are to go free. As an example, if you are up on federal charges, it helps to be female–you’re much less likely to be convicted, and even if you are, you’re less likely to have a long sentence or even spend time in prison at all. This could be viewed as a form of so-called “benevolent sexism,” though it is still very much sexism: it is informed by the idea that women tend not to be criminals. Our perfect criminal is a man, after all.
Switching over to perfect victims, we find very similar problems. Victims of various crimes are likely to have their behavior and histories examined, and if reason is found to doubt their victimhood, they can be treated more like a criminal than someone who has been wronged. The most common examples of this involve the many forms of sexual and domestic assault. A perfect victim of these is a young, white, attractive, sexually reserved woman. Every one of these traits that is chipped away makes a victim less and less likely to be believed. Male victims of sexual and domestic violence are hardly taken seriously at all. While the situation has improved considerably for women who are victims of domestic violence–police are now quicker to arrest men suspected of beating their partners–when a woman levels an accusation of sexual assault or rape, her behavior is still likely to be put under the microscope in order to damage her credibility. A woman who drinks, is out alone at night, dresses provocatively, or is sexually active may be blamed for her own assault–again, because our conception of a victim is that of a pure, blameless figure attacked out of the blue by an uncaring monster.
These stereotypes interact in tragic ways. While George Zimmerman escaped prison for killing Trayvon Martin–essentially because Zimmerman thought the teenage boy a criminal, and Martin, by being a young black male, fit the profile of one–Marissa Alexander received an outrageously excessive prison sentence for firing a warning shot to ward off her abusive husband. Both events happened in Florida, which is a “stand-your-ground” state, meaning that an individual who feels threatened is not obligated to flee, but may stand their ground and use deadly force to defend themselves. Alexander, who is black, evidently did not suitably check enough perfect victim boxes, but was instead treated like a hardened criminal. Though her conviction and sentence were later overturned, there is still the possibility she will be retried and convicted again. And as for Zimmerman, there will never be any justice for his killing of Martin.
It is easy to see, then, that these stereotypes of what criminals and victims look and act like are deeply racially and genderally charged, though many other factors can come into play, too.
The reality is that very, very few criminals fit our idea of what a real (perfect) criminal is like, and the same goes for victims. Humans, all of us, are complex, messy beings. It is useful and necessary to deconstruct these stereotypes in order to treat people–both criminals and victims–in a just and equitable manner.