‘Criminal’ considered

Theus-Roberts, E. C.

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'Criminal' Considered, by E. C. Theus-Roberts In our current social climate defining 'criminal' is unnecessary. Everybody carries a mental image of what a criminal looks like, their behavior and so on. Debating laws and criminal codes that dictate what is or is not criminal is useless because, these change every generation, if not more often. Instead, our focus will be on how our individual and collective conceptions of 'criminal' affect our interactions, relations, social development, among other things. Long before Donald J. Trump became the most belligerent U.S. president in recent memory, criminality had invaded public life, becoming an open part of social debate and our intimate relations. Criminality, the judicial and penal systems, even reforms and other initiatives have turned "trendy." Criminality, crime, criminals, and prevention or punishment are splashed across every screen: cable news channels, television series, many films and of course, on demand on our internet connected smart phones, tablets and more. Even keeping pace with the Kardashian clan means a trip down criminal lane. All joking aside, the criminal debate is a serious issue. Criminal has long since evolved beyond a word with a set definition and applicability. Crime is no longer a clean cut issue in which only specialists weigh in. It has become a social ill and general concern. After all, the U.S. does boast the largest incarcerated population worldwide. Disenfranchisement and other consequences habitually associated with criminal have had a deleterious social effect, creating a new class―the lumpen. Broad consensus realizes criminal is affecting much more than the lumpen, it is changing our nation. Criminality is a part of so many distinct conversations: civil liberties i.e. voting rights; economics i.e. changing labor force; immigration and more. Our prejudice toward criminal often deeply affects determination of these issues, in turn, their development or lack thereof. So, one can only hope with all the present and growing attention, perhaps an honest "criminal debate" can finally occur. Take immigration and crime for instance. Immigration is forever a hot button issue for our nation of emigrants. The correlation between crime and immigration is a fitting place to begin because it allows us to grapple the wider consequences of criminal. President's, Trump that is, vitriolic rants expose one long held misconception: illegal immigration and crime are synonymous. While the relationship between any immigration and crime is tenuous at best, few states track immigration status hand-in-hand with crime as states like Texas do. Therefore, there exists a void in which prejudice and facile conjecture can be paraded as serious research and hard data. Regardless of ideological learnings what is often painfully missing from the crime immigration debate is discussion of our prejudice's effects. Consider the murder of Marcelo Lucero, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, who was killed by a group of high school teenagers in Patchoque, Long Island, in 2008. For a full exposition you can read "Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an All American Town," by Mirta Ojito. Marcelo's murder is more appropriate because, U.S. immigration focus is and has been on the hispanic sector for quite some time. Though 9/11 brought Middle easterners under close scrutiny, they constitute a peripheral issue in immigration debates. Latinos account for approximately 40 percent of U.S. population growth due to immigration. Which means when crime and immigration are discussed, linked and interwoven the general image will be a latino. Mexicans and those of Mexican descent total over 60 percent of the hispanic presence stateside making them the most visible of a very visible 'minority' demographic and unfortunately, an easy target for prejudice and bias as we see in Trump's weekly diatribes. The relating of latino and criminal does more than give vent to long held misconceptions. For many of us in the latino community, Marcelo's case, its outcome, was far from 'justice.' This matter, like a similar occurrence in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, brought many neglected issues center stage. Most important, Marcelo's murder, lack luster prosecution and events afterwards have forced the nation to answer an unwelcome, disquieting question: is justice only reserved for citizens? Many have argued these cases were anomalies, one-in-a-million type events. Granted, they are unique. How often are a group of U.S. teens charged with murdering latino immigrants in gang assaults? A rhetorical question, yet, our question of justice is still at issue. Events following these murder trials demonstrate the validity of questioning our sense of justice. In the Shenandoah killing (also 2008) the criminal's convictions were overturned. In Patchogue, the same people instrumental in seeking justice for Marcelo and punishment for his killer made an about-face deciding too much just desserts had been served and started petitioning for a lessening in Marcelo's murderer's sentence―25 years for manslaughter. Adding insult to injury, an abundance of information regarding similar occurrences became available as one after another after another immigrant came forward to divulge harrowing accounts of victimization by teens and young adults strictly because they were hispanic. As brought to light in both Patchogue and Shenandoah criminal prosecutions, the assailants had attacked latino immigrants before, some multiple times, "for fun." Perhaps, it's not such an anomaly? At about twelve years removed, another "anomaly" has clutched our nation's attention with a latino in a central role. Rogel Lazaro Aquilera Mederos was involved in Colorado's worst fatal, multi-vehicle highway crash ever. Two factors immediately distinguish this case from Marcelo's murder and the Shenandoah killing. One, Rogel, while Cuban, is also a U.S. citizen. He immigrated under the former system granting an immediate path to citizenship to all us Cubans fleeing our homes to escape Fidel's regime. Two, those affected by the crash, including the four deceased, were legal citizens. As distinct as the cases may seem they serve an intriguing comparison. Where Marcelo's murderer and the Shenandoah's killer were very narrow in scope, Rogel's case, though still developing, is following a much more typical trend―excessive, even cumulative charges. Avoiding whether or not prosecution results in justice and without getting into a debate about laws and their ever changing criteria, one question rarely asked is how prejudiced is our justice? Stepping away from immigration and crime we must contemplate prejudice and its involvement in creating our social reality. Prejudice against latinos has a long history in the U.S., dating back to the first recorded incident in latino discrimination during California's Gold Rush. Us latinos are not the first to be discriminated against and if history is any indicator, we won't be the last. Racial prejudice and bias do contribute to our collective and personal sense of justice, but more important is our perspectives on 'criminal.' Condemnation of criminality is much older and ingrained than latino prejudice. Combined these are the determining factors in our consideration of justice and responses to criminality. Generally speaking, criminals are shunned, abhorrent reminders of socially unacceptable behavior. Criminal is a social malignant necessitating punishment - just desserts. History shows over and over how a criminal, once "branded", is no longer meritous of equal treatment enjoyed by law abiding citizens. This is not a criticism just a statement of fact: criminals are not like us, they deserve lesser, if not bad, treatment. The sum total of our general criminal conviction. Returning to crime, immigration, prejudice a few explanations emerge shedding light on the existence of so much negativity in our discourse on these topics. Crossing the border without authorization is an illegal act ( i.e. a crime), meaning every undocumented immigrant is a criminal. The main 'border' referred to in most debates is the U.S. Mexico border. This, visibility of our -latino- presence, overwhelming representation in U.S. population growth consequence of immigration means latinos must confront Trump-esque anti-hispanic resistance. More than that, correlating illegal immigration to latinos and latinos to crime through the criminality of illegally immigrating means we experience, at the very least, speculation of our legality; and, at the very most, outright relegation to lumpen status. Without any doubt, attaching criminal is detrimental individually, collectively it is catastrophic. Speaking in generalities, criminals are deserving of whatever treatment they receive. After all, by committing a crime(s) they forfeited their rights; the roots of disenfranchisement. 'Criminals' die on a regular basis in our country's prisons, jails, detention centers, law enforcement facilities due to medical neglect, psychological traumas, inadequate or rotten foods, undrinkable water, inmate on inmate strife and ever more occurring abuses by authorities. Those who survive are forever changed, branded in more ways than one. By now I suspect you, like myself, have found these issues stir up an even more unnerving question: where is our humanity? In today's culture 'criminal' is arguably the most damaging pejorative ever. Assignation of criminal is a stain one can never fully remove. Its dehumanizing effect is not merely socially but rather personally devastating. Recall Marcelo Lucero and the Shenandoah killing. Marcelo, as the Shenandoah victim, was an undocumented immigrant, or to use common parlance, an illegal alien. The word "alien" is illustrative. An alien is something strange, not of our world. Add what illegal connotates and the result is horrifying. Marcelo was murdered for being a latino and undocumented immigrant. The same factors contributing to the Shenandoah killing. Did they deserve to die because, for crossing the border entering the U.S. without permission, they were criminals? Our general conviction says criminals deserve whatever they get, but put in these terms it seems beyond heartless and unjust. Think of all the terms associated with criminal: prisoner, convict, felon, inmate, offender, defendant, parolee. Even illegal alien is a phrase calculated to provoke and promote dissociation. Society suffers from a dissociative state regarding all things, however obliquely, connected to criminality. Our racial bias, media portrayals, influenced or conditioned perspectives, collective and individual prejudices translate into easy rationalizations for inhumanity towards 'criminal.' I make use of immigration, race and prejudice to highlight the effects of criminal but by no means is criminal limited to these. For example, crime through immigration affects economic development in jobs and through employment economic wealth. The question is not whether citizens or noncitizens deserve justice. Our debates should not center on illegality or legal justifications. The issue at hand eclipses all those trivialities. Our predominant concern must be on criminal. On whether the conditional dictates the perpetual―whether being criminal invalidates being human.

Author: Theus-Roberts, E. C.

Author Location: Colorado

Date: October 31, 2019

Genre: Essay

Extent: 9 pages

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