by Matt the Intern
My friend Patrick, who lived with a host parent in Salt Lake City, Utah, was headed home to New York for the summer. As a departure gift, my friend Julian and I took him out to a nice steak dinner, paid for by his host parent, of course. When we got back to his house, Patrick told us he had a stash of mostly empty beer cans hidden in his closet he didn’t want to leave behind for his host parent to find. Julian and I, being the good friends we are, took the stash off of Patrick’s hands, throwing the transparent trash bag in the trunk of Julian’s car. We bid Patrick farewell and went to see a movie. When we were driving home around 1:00 AM, Julian did a rolling stop at a stop sign two blocks away from my house. A University of Utah police officer threw on his lights and pulled us over. The officer’s first move was to shine his flashlight in the trunk where Patrick’s stash was in plain view. Having seen what turned out to be 13 empty beer cans, 3 unopened, the officer pulled us out of the car, breathalyzed us, and made us prove that we were returning from the movies and dinner. Our relatively innocent story and our intention to treat the stash as trash didn’t seem to matter to him, and he cited us both with Minor in Possession (MIP) of Alcohol charges. My father drove down the street and brought me home, scolding me about how I should have learned my lesson the first time I got an MIP at a house party in Park City, UT the previous summer, but eventually realizing the innocence in our actions.
These charges required that we go to court later that summer. As any concerned parent with the financial resources to do so would, my parents hired a pair of lawyers from the Salt Lake area. The lawyers had a lot to say. Like my parents, they insisted that this wasn’t really a crime because I didn’t claim possession of the stash, and I didn’t own the car. They told me to bring a copy of my transcript and resume to court. They told us that the Judge, like the society in Salt Lake City, was influenced by the LDS church and was not likely to be lenient, but that the state appointed prosecuting attorney was a retired sports announcer with no such religious affiliation.
The court date was in late August, just before school started. My parents and I arrived early to meet with our lawyers one last time. I took the time to observe those who had court times before my own. The kids I observed were predominantly Hispanic or Islander, with several white kids mixed in, an accurate reflection of the population of the west side of the Salt Lake valley, the side known for its high crime rate, drug problem, and low-income residents. From what I could tell, none of them had fancy lawyers or printed official transcripts or resumes. None of them attended the expensive private school I attended. What some of us had in common, I discovered through eavesdropping, was a Minor in Possession of Alcohol charge. The kid before me walked out of the courtroom crying alongside his mother, who was saying something about how she didn’t know what she was going to do without him being able to drive. When my time came, I told the Judge some of my story and let the lawyers and my documents tell the rest. After some deliberation, the Judge said something along the lines of, “What are you doing here? You don’t belong here.” He ended up tallying up my volunteer hours at Primary Children’s Hospital, the hospital my mother and I drove to some mornings (some mornings for me, every morning for her) – her to treat kids and me to hangout with them. He concluded that despite my record, I wasn’t a delinquent with criminal tendencies, but that I was a “bound-for-success” normal kid who got unlucky twice. We ended up paying a $200 fine on top of the expensive lawyer fee and I was on my way.
I believed the Judge. I was a good kid destined for success, not a criminal. I thought his lenient verdict was fair for me as an individual, given my circumstances. I thought the verdict was fair because I considered underage drinking something short of criminal behavior and to treat it as such was unfair. Then, a year and a half later, came my surprise. I started to realize that maybe my lenient punishment was just as unfair as treating a minor in possession of alcohol like a criminal, taking away their license or punishing them in other harsher terms.
As I learned in my freshman year sociology class, crime is largely a byproduct of strain. Robert Metron’s “Strain Theory” establishes that American society functions on the premise of valuing economic success and providing the proper methods of doing so, including going to school and getting a job. Those who do not have the opportunity to achieve economic success because they lack the financial means of doing so, meaning they lack the proper method, tend to revolt and perform deviant acts. For those awaiting their time in court with me for MIP charges, their deviant behavior can be described as a form of rejectionism, where they give up on trying to achieve economic success and they give up the method of doing so, such as going to school. As a result, some of them drink underage or do drugs; they get caught and are treated like criminals. Furthermore, when these kids are treated like criminals for drinking, they label themselves as criminals and are much more likely to continue participating in deviant behavior for the rest of their lives. These kids are much more likely to fall victim to the principles of the strain theory, rejecting aspects of society, and most likely will remain in the low income class. In addition, it is likely their parents experienced the same formidable, socially constructed cycle of crime and poverty. These kids were, in a sense, socialized into a life of crime and poverty where economic success may not be as valued and the methods of achieving economic success were never valued. This pattern is cyclic and seemingly impossible to break. These kids were taught, covertly, that deviant behavior and poverty were the norm. Obviously, coming from two highly educated and successful physician parents, I did not experience the same strain, making it easy for me to avoid plummeting into a cycle a deviance. This circumstance lead me to consider the following question: does my background make my crime more inexcusable than those fighting poverty? Potentially.
Now consider my verdict. The Judge and my lawyers commented I didn’t belong amongst the other delinquents because I was destined for success, unlike other kids who commit the same crime. With respect to the concept of social stratification, they were not wrong. The American society is a capitalist society, and while such an economy possesses a great amount of upward mobility, or ability to become economically successful in general, our society also possesses an unprecedented amount of social inequality. This social inequality, paired with the competitiveness of an individualistic society, greatly impacts the praised social mobility. That is, because the rich are so rich, they hold enough power in our society to ensure that they, along with their kids and kids’ kids, stay equally financially advantaged. My parents, as a product of their hard work, belong among this group of upper class citizens. Therefore, I have a much better chance of becoming part of this group myself; their hardwork and success have afforded me the opportunity to become similarly, economically successful. My juvenile counterparts from West Valley do not share the same financial advantage, and as a result, are much less likely to become economically successful. Revisit the Judge’s statement “you don’t belong here.” What did he mean? What I did was, objectively, a crime, so if I did not belong there, then who did? It seems that the judge assumed the kids from West Valley did, thus they were labeled as criminals. If a juvenile from West Valley, coming from a low income background that exhibited little “destiny for success” with a criminal record like my own stepped foot into that same courtroom, do you think the verdict would have been the same? Probably not.
While this anecdote highlights the tragic reinforcement of social hierarchy and its role in keeping those who are privileged, privileged and those who are not, not, it is important to understand the point. First, American society is constructed in a way that oppresses those who are already disadvantaged. With the vast social inequality that ensures a minority group of citizens possess unprecedented amounts of power as a result of their economic status, the American Dream is a myth. Our society is beginning to reflect more of a caste system than a class system. Second, our justice system is not objective. The outcome of any case is largely dependent on the status of those involved on an individual level. Lastly, and most importantly, it is imperative to recognize how the previous two conclusions intersect and, in a sense, communicate to solidify a cyclical pattern of oppression. That being said, I do not wish that I was treated differently. I am grateful my license wasn’t taken away, or that I wasn’t sentenced to 200 hours of picking up trash on the side of the road, or that I wasn’t required to report to a probation officer on a weekly basis. That is not to say I support harsher punishment for those “not destined to succeed,” but rather that our society needs revision to a point where discrepancies in treatment derived from pre-existing privilege become extinct. Opportunity to succeed cannot continue to be dependent on where you grew up or who your parents are, but what you are willing to do and how hard you work. It should not be about where one belongs, but rather where one could belong.