A Reflection on Race, Class and Gender in the Criminal Justice System: The Story of “Rebecca”

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I know a woman who was recently sentenced to 90 days in county jail. She served 45 of those days, and emerged bitter at the system because she believed she would have (or should have) had to serve even fewer of those days. When I heard that she was “peeved” (putting it mildly) about her circumstances, my first thought was, “You should count your blessings, my dear. You have no idea how lucky you are. The color of your skin has spared you a far worse fate.”

Here are a few things you need to know about Rebecca (her name has been changed to protect her anonymity): She is white. She is middle-aged. She is married with two children. She has a professional career. She and her husband own a home on a hill in a trendy and upwardly mobile neighborhood in Los Angeles. She suffers from addiction. (I know this because she has shared this with me personally, and because she called me one night, heavily intoxicated, asking for my help. That is a story for another time.) Her substances of choice were/are alcohol and prescription pain medications. She was sober for many years before she relapsed that night. She was subsequently involved in more than one auto accident while driving under the influence. Children and Family Services have been involved with her family, but the children have never been removed from her care. When she was most recently arrested, she resisted, striking out at the officer with physical force. (She’s a small but fairly scrappy woman.)

White privilege. It’s a cunning and powerful force. Those of us who benefit from having a fair complexion often don’t even recognize how much we enjoy it. We don’t take note each time we walk into a Radio Shack and aren’t watched or followed. We don’t question whether we are safe taking a walk through most neighborhoods. We don’t have reason to believe that our name (which often gives away our ethnic identity) will cause a potential employer to disregard our application. And, as we’ve seen in so many recent and heinous examples, we aren’t presumed to be a threat by law enforcement officials even when we’ve actually been involved in a crime that puts ourselves and/or others in danger.

Of course class privilege was likely at play in this situation, as well. The incident occurred in said upwardly mobile community, not in the “hood,” and one could ascertain that she is a person of means by virtue of the car she drives and the clothes she wears. Might the arresting officer or the prosecutor or the judge have treated her differently if she had been a resident of one of “those” neighborhoods? It is, in many cases, impossible to disentangle the overlapping layers of privilege. Sociologists call it Intersectionality – the various standpoints we occupy in a culture where certain groups are granted privileges while others are surveiled and sanctioned. [In other words, while I might enjoy privilege as a person with White skin from a middle-class background, I am disadvantaged as a woman. A Black man might enjoy certain privileges as a man, but be disadvantaged by his membership in an ethnic minority group, and so forth.]

Which leads me to the gender component of Rebecca’s situation. The fact that she is female may have impacted how the arresting officer treated her, perhaps to her advantage. Would the cop have been more forceful with a male arrestee? Possessing a female body in any other circumstance is typically considered a liability in a society of male privilege, but at the scene of an arrest, a white woman may be more likely to be treated with kid gloves than a white male. On the other hand, statistics have shown that women are often given harsher sentences than men for the same crimes. Did being female perhaps garner her a tougher sentence than her male counterpart might have received?

Gender issues aside, I want to shake some sense into Rebecca. I want her to see that – in comparison to her poor sisters and sisters of color – she got off easy. I’ve worked with, been friends with, and conducted research on formerly incarcerated women for over a decade. Most of the women I’ve spent time with are African American and poor. And most of them committed the same types of crimes that my White friend did. Some of those crimes – like possession of a controlled substance – put no one but the “offender” in danger (unlike driving under the influence does), and none the women I’ve ever met have assaulted a police officer. Yet all of them have been convicted and sentenced; and not to jail time but to state prison time, and not for days but for years. And the majority of those who have minor children have had those children taken into the foster care system – some completely stripped of their parental rights.

So my initial reaction to my White upper-middle-class friend’s 45-day stint in jail did not garner much sympathy from me. But then again, I’ve never been to jail. I’ve never had to endure a single day behind bars, much less 45 days. I have no arrest record, nor do I suffer from an addiction disorder. So who am I to tell her that she is lucky, that she should be grateful?

Yet the fact remains: Our current criminal justice system disproportionately ensnarls and exacts harsher penalties on people of color, a fact that might have brought some humility to my friend who avoided what could have been a far worse fate had she not enjoyed the privilege of occupying a body with White skin. It is not for me to impose this “you should be grateful” view on her. But I hope that we – the collective of beings engaged in this grand social experiment – will pause often to reflect on the ways in which our justice system doles out its retributions and reconsider their necessity, their intensity, their consequences, and their pervasive and persistent double standards.

I don’t believe that those 45 days in jail have improved Rebecca’s life in any way. I don’t know that they have been of benefit to anyone at all. I believe other interventions – such as mandatory substance abuse treatment, anger management, or counseling – might have served all involved stakeholders (she, her family, persons affected by the poor choices she made, residents of the community, taxpayers) better. Is not the same true of the countless others who are like her, save for the color of their skin and their socio-economic standing? Don’t they also deserve solutions that address the root of their problems (which I believe to reside in psychological, behavioral, and perhaps even spiritual realms)?

While Rebecca will likely continue to feel peeved about those 45 days she had to spend in jail (and perhaps rightly so), I will choose to drop my own righteous view that she should just be grateful it wasn’t worse and focus instead on what we can do to ensure that all women swept up in the ever-expanding net of the criminal justice system are treated as what they are – human beings deserving of dignity, compassion, real opportunities for healing and transformation, and second chances.

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