Animals and Criminal Justice

Last week, social media feeds exploded with reports that President Trump had called immigrants “animals”. Later reporting clarified that he was speaking in response to comments from a sheriff about MS-13 gang members. It was only some immigrants who were animals.


MS 13

Today, the White House posted a webpage titled “What You Need to Know About The Violent Animals of MS-13“.  The page vaguely identifies five horrific crimes that police suspect were MS-13 related. In doing so, it uses the word animals as often as it uses the phrase “gang members”. It also claims that 40% of murders in Suffolk County, NY between January 2016 and June 2017 were related to MS-13. It’s hard to know exactly what that means. There were 55 cases of murder and manslaughter during all of 2016 and 2017. A fair assessment would be about 44 of those happened in that time period but the county crime statistics don’t separate the two crimes. So the 40% figure might sound alarming but could be a relatively small (but awful) number of crimes.

Fordham law professor John Pfaff had a series of tweets today trying to put the MS-13 data in context. He noted that while MS-13 members were charged with 207 murders between 2012 and 2016, there were 76,000 murders over those four years. He points out that MS-13 accounted for .3% of US murders over that time period.

E.J. Dionne wrote this morning that “it’s never right to call other humans beings animals.” He observes:

Here’s what’s insidious about this: Throughout his presidential campaign and since, Trump has regularly blended talk about all immigrants with specific attacks on immigrants who committed serious crimes — particularly those who belong to the murderous MS-13. Even assuming that Trump was, in fact, limiting himself to MS-13 in his reply to Mims, he has spent years creating rhetorical links between the foreign-born as a whole (especially those here illegally) and the bloodshed perpetrated by the few. By playing fast and loose with language, Trump avails himself of escape hatches, as he did last week, and can then go on to cast his critics as defenders of criminality.

In my opening lecture of my criminology class, I always spend time talking about Spiderman and Dick Tracy (I have to explain this one). Not because the heroes are compelling but because the villains share something in common: they are noticeably different from “normal” people.

In Spiderman movies, there is an accident that creates the bad guys. In Dick Tracy, there are identifiable by character defects: Mumbles, Wrinkles, Flat Top (why didn’t he change his hairstyle?). With a simple glance, you could tell who was the bad guy and know something of their malevolence.

I go on to explain that nearly all theories of criminal behavior are based on a notion that something is wrong with that criminal. There was a failure in development or personality or social control. Because they aren’t like us. They’re broken.

On the drive to Colorado, I was listening to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Hearing the beginning of her argument, I was intrigued by the states that ban convicted felons from ever voting again. Why would we do that? Because they are animals. Even though they’ve served their sentence, we still don’t think they are “fixed”.

It reminds me of that great psychological study by D.L Rosenhan, “Being Sane in Insane Places“. A series of confederates got themselves committed to asylums claiming to hear voices. After admission, they soon told the staff that the voices were gone now. Upon their release, their files read “schizophrenics in remission“.

We too often operate with the implicit assumption that people who commit crime (of any type) are flawed characters. While they may not be doing anything bad at the moment, it may only be a matter of time until they do. That’s why they are seen as a job risk or why they can’t vote.

I’m not defending MS-13 members. I’m not even that upset with President Trump (although I agree that he excels at conflating factors and ignoring complexities). More concerning to me is that his comments are not that far away from our general assumptions about criminal behavior.

This is why I don’t watch shows like Criminal Minds. They feed that dualistic understanding of human behavior. Law and Order (the original) was always great because it was usually everyday socially mobile folks who committed crime for very normal motives. And we never thought they were animals.

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