Criminal Justice

Criminal justice system is 'radically altering' life in poor neighborhoods, prof says

Living in a working-class to poor African-American neighborhood in Philadelphia was an eye-opening experience for then-college sophomore Alice Goffman.

The criminal justice system was “radically altering the way life is lived” in the neighborhood, according to Goffman, now a University of Wisconsin assistant sociology professor. Writing for the New York Times, she concludes that the root causes of crime and violence in the neighborhood stemmed from economic hardship caused by an inability to find employment.

“Most of the young men I met had not finished high school and were struggling to find work,” Goffman wrote. “They lived with female relatives, and some sold drugs off and on. Many went to jail or prison, but before they went in, and after they came home, they lived as suspects and as fugitives. With pending cases in criminal courts, probation and parole sentences to complete or low-level warrants out for unpaid court fees or missed court dates, they worried that any encounter with the police would send them to prison. The threat of capture and confinement had seeped into the basic activities of daily living.”

One man named Mike was accused in a shooting; Mike said he wasn’t involved and didn’t even own a gun. His first arrest was at 13, when police searched him and found some marijuana. Mike’s best friend, Chuck, didn’t spend any time in jail until the age of 18, when he was charged with aggravated assault for a schoolyard fight. After eight months in jail, the assault charge was dropped. “These young men were coming of age in courtrooms, jail visiting rooms and prison cells,” Goffman writes.

“Some of the saddest days I spent in the neighborhood were the days that Mike, Chuck and their friends searched for work,” Goffman says. “Watching them try and fail, day after day, to secure low-paying part-time jobs broke my spirit.”

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