Privilege and Punishment: How Race and Class Matter in Criminal Court

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PrivilegeAs the global leader in incarceration, America locks up its own citizens at a rate that dwarfs that of any other developed nation. Yet while racial minorities and the urban poor fill American prisons and jails for street crimes, the state has historically struggled to consistently prosecute corporate crime. Why does the American state lock people up for street crimes at extraordinary rates but demonstrate such a limited capacity to prosecute corporate crime? While most scholarship analyzes these questions separately, juxtaposing these phenomena illuminates how the carceral state’s divergent treatments of street crime and corporate crime share common and self-reinforcing ideological and institutional origins.

Analyzing intellectual history, policy debates, and institutional change relating to the politics of street crime and corporate crime from 1870 through today demonstrates how the class biases of contemporary crime policy emerged and took root during multiple junctures in U.S. history, including the Gilded Age, Progressive Era, New Deal, and post-war period. This reveals that political constructions of street criminals as pathological deviants and corporate criminals as honorable people driven to crime by market dynamics have consistently been rooted in common ideas about what causes and constitutes crime.

By the 1960s, these developments embedded class inequalities into the criminal justice institutions that facilitated the carceral state’s rise while the regulatory state became the government’s primary means of controlling corporate crime. The historical development of mass incarceration, the corporate criminal law, and regulatory state should not be viewed as autonomous developmental threads, but as processes that have overlapped and intersected in ways that have reinforced politically constructed understandings about what counts as “crime” and who counts as a “criminal.”

Attorney-client relationships seem to favor the privileged in criminal court and deny justice to the poor and to working-class people of color. The number of Americans arrested, brought to court, and incarcerated has skyrocketed in recent decades. Criminal defendants come from all races and economic walks of life, but they experience punishment in vastly different ways. “Privilege and Punishment” examines how racial and class inequalities are embedded in the attorney-client relationship, providing a devastating portrait of inequality and injustice within and beyond the criminal courts.

PrivilegeMatthew Clair, author of “Privilege and Punishment: How Race and Class Matter in Criminal Court” is the assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University, where he holds a courtesy appointment at Stanford Law School. Clair conducted extensive fieldwork in the Boston court system, attending criminal hearings and interviewing defendants, lawyers, judges, police officers, and probation officers. In this eye-opening book, he uncovers how privilege and inequality play out in criminal court interactions. When disadvantaged defendants try to learn their legal rights and advocate for themselves, lawyers and judges often silence, coerce and punish them. Privileged defendants, who are more likely to trust their defense attorneys, delegate authority to their lawyers, defer to judges and are rewarded for their compliance. Clair shows how attempts to exercise legal rights often backfire on the poor and on working-class people of color, and how effective legal representation alone is no guarantee of justice.

The author weaves stories from hundreds of criminal defendants and officials in the Boston criminal court system to show how social injustice runs rampant. The book offers an in-depth, humanizing look at how injustice operates within the courthouse and beyond, and how to reform the system. Clair exposes how the relationship between client and attorney can help or hinder justice. Often those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have worse outcomes, in many cases because they do not know how to communicate with their attorneys. One reader said:

Superbly written and powerfully argued, “Privilege and Punishment” draws needed attention to the injustices that are perpetuated by the attorney-client relationship in today’s criminal courts, and describes the reforms needed to correct them.

Given the current state of civil unrest the country is experiencing, it is long past time to confront how criminal courts and their agents—judges, prosecutors, and lawyers alike—reproduce social inequalities and how ordinary people resist. This is an important lesson on the need for radical transformation not only in courtrooms but also in the broader society. It is difficult for advantaged people in the United States to understand what it is like to be ignored, silenced, mistreated, and failed by the people and institutions that are supposed to look out for all citizens. Privilege and Punishment provides a powerful, beautifully written account of how the criminal court system treats some individuals like clients and others like criminals. Clair’s book is a must-read for anyone interested in reforming the criminal legal system.

Opinion by Cherese Jackson (Virginia)


Matthew Clair: Privilege and Punishment: How Race and Class Matter in Criminal Court
Penn Libraries: Punishment And Privilege: The Politics Of Class, Crime, And Corporations In America

Image Credits:

Top / Featured Images Courtesy of PickPic – Creative Commons License
Inline Image Courtesy of Matthew Clair – Used With Permission