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Some real effects of the US approach to crime - Part 1

By Kirsten Edwards - posted Saturday, 15 July 2000

A German friend of mine recently opened a paper presentation at a prestigious law school with a story about going to a feminist legal theory workshop. The talk was about constitutional law and European intervention into regional ethnic disputes so the audience was pretty perplexed about the mention of feminist legal theory. My friend continued that he discovered at the workshop that studies show that female academics tend to open their articles and presentations with an anecdote in order to humanize their accounts. Males instead tend to open with statistics, in order to show the prevalence of the problem or issue that they are addressing.

How was a sensitive new-age academic supposed to start a presentation? He decided to go with a bit of both. This was a great opening story, my friend had managed to introduce humor into his presentation AND score points with the feminists and/or legal theorists in the audience – a pretty important thing for a white male speaking at an Ivy League Law School these days. But it also got me thinking about my writing – how do I bust sexual stereotypes and manage write to appeal across genders? In the great post-modern tradition of "choose your own adventure" I give you "choose your own article".



On April 5, 2000 Associate Press released a news snippet entitled "man jailed for 16 years in Texas for stealing a snickers bar". The headline sounded too strange to be true but apparently the offense was not as trivial, or the sentence as harsh, as it seemed. The text continued that Assistant District Attorney Jodi Brown had helpfully explained: the Snickers bar was king-size, "and it was a Snickers bar. If it was a Milky Way, we probably wouldn't have even tried him on it."

Besides, the man, a Mr Payne, "was no stranger to the system and disregarding the law". Mr Payne was tried as a habitual offender, raising the misdemeanour shoplifting charge to felony theft. His previous conviction: stealing a bag of Oreos.


Every week in the US, on average, a new prison is built. The US recently hit the 2 million mark in its population of prisoners – that’s more people than the population of Brisbane. The country, according some sources, passes rivals South Africa and Russia and now has the world’s largest prison system.

In Australia we devote mountains of column inches over our outrage over the death of one young aboriginal boy in custody serving 28 days for stealing stationary. And rightfully so. The 16-year Snickers bar sentence didn’t raise an eyebrow here, I read about it in the Australian press. In the US 45 juveniles died in one year, 1994, after being placed in adult prisons.

Prison is a pretty useful place to store the people you don’t want to deal with. Most of us assume prison is for very bad people who have surrendered their chance to be treated properly and what happens to them inside doesn’t really matter. But when a prosperous and supposedly humane country like America starts to put so many people away it is worth thinking "what is going on?" If you look more closely, both at the overall statistics and some of the human stories behind the statistics there is even more reason for concern. This article looks at some groups that dominate the population of prisoners in the US – drug users, the mentally ill, black people, pre-trial detainees and battered women.


The innocent – presumed and actual


Innocents actually form the majority of prisoners in the US. What? Well there are two kinds of innocence – one where you didn’t do it, the other where you have not yet had the chance to be tried and convicted of an offense in a court of law by a jury who finds you guilty beyond reasonable doubt (known as presumed innocence).

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This is part one of a four-part essay. Part 2 will discuss the effects of race and drugs on incarceration rates in the US. Part 3 discusses the effects of mental illness and domestic violence on incarceration rates in the US and Part 4 examines the implications of this policy for American democracy.

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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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