How to Create a Criminal Class

On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (Fieldwork Encounters and Discoveries)

By Alice Goffman

In its August 24th issue, Time published an article titled “What It’s Like Being a Cop Now,”  (preview; subscription necessary to read in full) using Philadelphia as an example. Many will find the article illuminating. The article reminded us of a book published last year, On the Run. While not without some serious flaws, it nonetheless provides an equally illuminating view of how the receiving end of policing how it and how extreme, confrontational policing can contribute to creating and perpetuating a criminal class. Here’s our previously published review of Goffman’s study:

Officials parrot the same refrain in crime-plagued communities: we can’t stop it by ourselves; we need the help of the public. So, why don’t the residents, the afflicted ones, help? If Goffman’s exercise in sociology does nothing else, it answers that question neatly, and powerfully. Who would cooperate with a paramilitary force that imprisons men, leaves women to fend for themselves, destroys already weak families, ensures perpetual poverty, and generally turns life upside down (as in taking care of business in the dead of night)? Would you?

But the larger question, which Goffman leaves readers to formulate and answer for themselves, is: what would work? Perhaps a system that punished when necessary; that showed more understanding and mercy most of the time; that, in doing so, made it possible for people to cooperate with authorities in bringing order and real justice to these neighborhoods.

As for Goffman’s methods, well, many will find them questionable. She immersed herself in the neighborhood and became one of the gang, the accepted white sister. Her immersion led her into risky situations, some, such as abetting lawbreakers, illegal. Even more, though, while it provided her with deep insight into how these poor and sieged communities work, it distorted her lens. She was no longer an impartial observer; she was an active participant in the life, to the point where she questioned who she was. That seems a certain signal that she carried things over the line and tosses a pall over her findings and conclusions.

Some may find the book tedious slogging after the first couple of sections. If so, you might jump to the conclusion, which summarizes her findings and thoughts. You might also read her section on methodology to grasp how far down the rabbit hole she tumbled.

While these are critical remarks, still in all, Goffman raises important questions in readers’ minds. She illustrates that what we are doing currently is not working. Not only not working, but doing tremendous harm to whole generations. It’s a criminal justice strategy that alienates the communities it is supposed to help, and alienates the communities looking on and wondering what the heck is going on. w/c

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