Framing crime and punishment

bernie madoffIt is “interesting” how discussions of crime and punishment vary based on the social classes of offenders.

Take this example, for instance, by Laurent Mucchielli, regarding financial criminality:

Despite recurring complaints from the financial world (and especially in the context of the 2008 financial crisis), economic criminality is hardly the target of out-of-control justice systems (in France and, I would add, in the US). When the justice system goes after financial criminals, it hits on the margins of that world (see Bernie Madoff). And when such criminality is discussed, it is in surprisingly understanding and soft terms: questions are raised regarding the effectiveness of the laws in place in terms of punishment; concerns are raised as to whether the state overreaches and whether punishment really fits the crime (who was hurt, after all) and one ponders the effects of excessive punishment on social regulation (will anyone EVER want to be a trader again if they get sanctioned?).

More than that, in times where the slightest act of deviance from the projects raises the specter of out of control youth and gets helpfully hyped and overreported in the media, such is not the case on elite deviance:

“It has been called the potential “[tax] evasion of the century”. But only once.

On 19 November, a Milan prosecutor asked for two of the most famous names in fashion – Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana – to be put on trial. But there has been barely a murmur about it in the Italian press.

Dolce, Gabbana and their company are accused of dodging tax on income of more than €1bn (£850m) – an amount that dwarfs the sums in previous Italian celebrity tax scandals.

The affair is potentially highly embarrassing for the “Gilbert and George of Italian fashion”, a duo whose sexy, baroque, often gilded designs have won the admiration and loyalty of celebrities including Victoria Beckham and Madonna.

Dolce and Gabbana are charged with defrauding the state over their taxes. If sent for trial, they risk being jailed for up to five years.

News of the prosecutor’s request – which now goes before a judge – might therefore have been expected to be front-page news in Italy, and a staple for discussion on chatshows and in the paparazzi gossip mags.

But Corriere della Sera, Milan’s leading newspaper, gave the story 126 words. La Stampa thought it deserved 87. La Repubblica, a third big Italian daily, ignored it altogether.

And since it was barely reported in the Italian press, the story was missed by all but the specialist fashion media elsewhere, the sole exception in Britain being an online newspaper site.”

Hey, who would want to lose these advertising monies?

On the other hand, when it comes to non-elite deviance, the tone changes:

“The government has been urged to overhaul community sentences in England and Wales to place the emphasis on intensive physical labour.

A survey by right-leaning think tank Policy Exchange found that 60% of 2,000 people polled thought the sentences were “soft” or “weak”.

The think tank said community sentences were flawed and should be replaced by more punitive “work orders”. (…)

His report comes ahead of a government announcement on plans for changes to rehabilitation which could see less jail time and more community orders for offenders.

Victims’ commissioner Louise Casey questioned whether making tea or costumes for the Notting Hill Carnival was sufficient punishment.

She said community sentences should be tough, intensive and visible to communities affected by the offenders’ actions.

“It’s as if the legal principle of punishment in sentencing is somehow unseemly – rather than a legitimate and correct response to those who step outside society’s agreed rules,” she said.

“To have the confidence of those who pass sentence, the public and of victims in particular, this must change.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “We are looking at how private and voluntary sector providers can be involved in running community sentences to make them more rigorous, ensure proper compliance, and deliver better value for the taxpayer.”

Well, one quick look at US prisons would dispose of the notion that harsh punishment reduces crime and recidivism. No questioning of whether the punishment fits the crime, whether a punitive logic is relevant at all, no soul-searching regarding society-wide consequences of a purely punitive system. The only discussion revolves around how hard must hard labor be in order to foster compliance. And nothing like privatization to get results (gotta love the business attitude: better value for the customer taxpayer).

The reality is this: in this quasi-social Darwinist worldview, wealthy people create their own wealth, and if they cheat a bit on the side, well, that is a small price to pay for their creative energies. Therefore, such deviance must be treated with indulgence for fear that punishment become a disincentive. Only the most egregious cases will be treated with the full force of the law (or those case too visible to ignore, like Enron).

Lower-class people, on the other hand, are useless, shiftless and a burden on the system. Their criminality is “cultural”, a rejection of the norms of society rather than a quirk that we must learn to tolerate because we all benefit from all the trickling-down. They need disciplining (in the sense of Discipline and Punish).

By Global Sociology Blog, @socprof

  1. 1

    Few people want to self-identify or be identified with “lower-class thugs” while most want to self-identify or be identified with materially successful people.

    That is, it’s just (real or false) empathy…

  2. 2

    Het probleem is dat de definitie van ‘bedrog’ vaak een glijdende schaal is tussen zaken die we volstrekt acceptabel vinden (gewone reclame) en zaken die we volstrekt inacceptabel vinden (demente oude vrouwtjes aan de deur hun kostbare schilderijen afhandig maken met een kutsmoes).

    Rijke mensen hun geld afhandig maken door rendementen te beloven die eigenlijk nergens voor langere tijd gehaald kunnen worden, ligt daar ergens tussen in.

  3. 3

    So why do these low-life people keep voting those district attorney’s back into office when they are not focusing their efforts on the plutocracy?