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Some real effects of the US approach to crime - Part 3

By Kirsten Edwards - posted Thursday, 31 August 2000

This is part 3 of Kirsten Edwards' four-part essay. Part 1 discussed the interpretation of guilt in the US legal system and part 2 discussed the role of race and drug use on incarceration rates. Part four examines the implications of this policy for American democracy.

The Mentally Ill

The mentally ill dominate prison populations. Some of them are genuinely dangerous and may need to be locked up. But it is hard to be mentally ill in the US and not end up locked up. Especially with the logic of New York Mayor (and Hilary Clinton's former opponent in the New York Senate Race) Rudy Giuliani.


Rudy is famous for many things. In Australia he is known for taking credit for the drop in New York's crime rate after the introduction of zero-tolerance policing. (the crime rate actually dropped more in cities without zero-tolerance but that's another story). Rudy is currently famous over here for admitting he is having an extra-marital affair. I think this is his own business but he also had suggested that all schools plaster copies of the 10 commandments on their walls (adultery is number six, Rudy). I call this Rudy-logic.

Rudy-logic is also responsible for his innovative way to cure homelessness in New York. The logic went like this "homeless people are everywhere in New York … they smell and they scare tourists which is bad for me … they might go away if I arrest them for sleeping on the streets and in subway stations. D'oh! Now they are clogging city-funded homeless shelters … must get rid of them. Let's see, why are people homeless? … Could it be substance abuse, Vietnam and Korean war trauma, domestic violence, serious mental illness - these are what the studies and census results all show? No, no it is poverty … poverty causes homelessness, poverty is caused by unemployment so YES YES homeless people need jobs!"

Rudy then decides he will get police to go to a shelter clogged with mentally ill people traumatized by violent pasts and physically remove all the ones that missed a job interview that day or failed to fill out the right "work for welfare" form. I am not kidding. At 3am police would kick out onto the streets the homeless people deemed not keen enough on competing in the US job market. Of course, sleeping on the streets is illegal so the homeless not cluey enough to immediately begin Internet start-ups or begin day trading quickly find themselves in trouble with the law.

Battered Women

Statistics: One third of emergency-room visits by women in the US are for treatment of domestic violence caused injuries. 1500 women, and that figure is universally stated, 1500 women die each year in the US as a result of domestic violence. Another widely quoted figure is 50 per cent of homeless people have experienced domestic violence. So those scary scenes in American Beauty aren't quite as fictional as we might like to think.

Suburbs and ghettos alike have terrible secrets behind closed doors. Fortunately, the US prosecutors have developed a radical new strategy for dealing with battered women - imprisonment.


I have written in another article about the battered women on death row for killing their abusive partners. They have a hard time claiming self-defense, especially if they got someone else to do it for them - clearly a sign of evil. The bruised and battered women should at least kill those cuddly abusive partners themselves. But my current favorite trend is another way of getting those pesky beaten chicks behind bars where they belong.

To understand this one involves the adoption of Rudy-style logic. One of the most horrible things imaginable is when a child is physically or sexually abused. It is natural that we feel the perpetrator should be locked up. But that doesn't make us feel much better - why not arrest the mother too? It doesn't seem necessary to elaborate on the physical difficulties a mother faces if they try to protect their child from a violent man. It even seems too boring and obvious to recite the reasons why battered women don't leave their abusive partners - the number of women who die trying to leave, the intense feeling of helplessness and isolation, the threat of future attacks on the woman or her child, the use by the batterer of children or family connections as leverage, and the lack of services to support women financially and emotionally if they do leave.

What is amazing is the increasing evidence of ingenuity on the part of battered women in trying to leave. What is extraordinary is when they fail to leave, even after repeated attempts, they can be locked up for "failure to protect" their child.

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About the Author

Kirsten Edwards is a Fulbright Scholar currently researching and teaching law at an American university. She also works as a volunteer lawyer at a soup kitchen and a domestic violence service and as a law teacher at a juvenile detention centre but all the community service in the world can’t seem to get her a boyfriend.

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