Criminal Justice Education: Alternatives to "Us" Versus
W. Mentor, J.D., Ph.D.
Department of Sociology and Criminology
University of North Carolina Wilmington
published in "Professing Humanist Sociology," Glenn Goodwin
and Martin Schwartz, eds. Washington DC: American
Sociological Association, 2000.
our efforts to humanize criminal justice education many of us
refer, often in vague terms, to humanist and/or peacemaking
criminology. Although well intentioned, unless we are careful
with our words and examples, we may provide our students an
opportunity to misinterpret the meaning and goals of humanist
criminology. For example, it is easy to encourage students to
humanize victims. However, if our humanizing efforts focus
solely on socially defined "victims" of crime, we run the risk
of intensifying the "us" versus "them" thinking we intend to
challenge. In light of this concern, this paper proceeds with
the idea that it is not necessarily helpful to turn victims,
by default, into fine examples of humanity, while offenders
are demonized. It is challenging to encourage students to make
an effort to understand, and care about, someone who has been
convicted of murder. When doing so, we walk a fine line. While
our goal is to introduce a humanistic viewpoint, we run the
risk of turning away students who will tune us out as they
assume we are "coddling" criminals. This line is worth
walking. The recognition of humanity, even among those who
have been defined as unworthy, represents a significant step
toward a humanist understanding of the criminal justice
moving forward, it is important to emphasize that many lives
have been shattered by crime. Clearly, some people are
dangerous, violent, and act with no respect for others.
Although we continue to seek alternatives, the behavior of
these individuals may leave society with little choice but to
incarcerate the individual, perhaps for the remainder of his
or her life.
is important to openly express the points stated in the
previous paragraph in an effort to minimize the challenges
inherent in any attempt to integrate a humanist perspective in
the teaching of criminal justice. Without clarification, some
students, as they conclude that the professor is crazy and/or
soft on crime, will shut out the humanist message. In order to
keep the attention and interest of the majority it is helpful
to occasionally place the humanist message in perspective.
"US" VERSUS "THEM" MENTALITY
efforts to move the teaching of criminology away from the "us"
verses "them" mentality are motivated by frustration as well
as hope. Mainstream criminology is the source of much of this
frustration. Additional frustration stems from the fact that
politicians continue to repeat the same policy errors. Many of
the flawed policies, for example, three strikes laws, the
"war" on drugs, and the incredible increase in incarceration,
seem to be directly related to the "us" versus "them"
mentality. The academic community endorses ineffective policy
by failing to point out the errors of, as well as the motives
behind, these policies.
hope that motivates my efforts to humanize criminology is
based on a belief (perhaps naive) that through our efforts to
educate future policy makers we may begin to see positive
changes in the criminal justice system. The strategies
presented in this paper are intended to generate change among
criminal justice students. My bet is that this change will be
in a certain direction. The teaching strategies discussed in
this paper are intended to challenge stereotypes. Humanist
criminology can succeed to the degree that the dominant
paradigm, which is typified by state directed violence, force,
and coercion, is questioned. The paradigm is challenged each
time a glimmer of humanity appears in an area we have been
told consists of people who do not deserve to be treated with
Bruck, in Decisions of Death, quotes Tocqueville in
suggesting that restraint in punishment "extends as far as our
sense of social equality, and no further: "the same man who is
full of humanity toward his fellow creatures when they are at
the same time his equals becomes insensible to their
affliction as soon as that equality ceases" (1991:525). Our
justice system, as well as our society, contains a variety of
dehumanizing mechanisms that assist in an effort to define
"them." This definitional process allows a systemic reaction
to crime that focuses on the individual rather than on the
causes of his or her behavior.
through the teaching of criminology and criminal justice, have
contributed to the "us" versus "them" mentality. Mills (1943)
warned that due to market forces, "textbooks tend to embody a
content agreed upon by the academic group using them"
(1943:165). Several years later, Liazos echoed similar
sentiments. In a review of popular deviance textbooks, Liazos
pointed out that ideological biases in the field of deviance
were "apparent as much from what these books leave unsaid and
unexamined, as from what they say" (1972:104). As we strive to
humanize criminal justice education we are able to avoid the
narrow interpretations offered by mainstream criminology in
our attempts to avoid the "us" versus "them" mentality.
HUMANIST CRIMINOLOGY COURSE
following discussion centers on strategies that encourage
alternative ways of thinking about "criminals." Many of these
strategies meet with resistance. As Quinney points out, many
students "come to us entrenched in a conservative ideology of
crime. . . . To advance an alternative, a non-violent and
humane approach to crime, is met with considerable dismay and
resistance" (1993: 438). In light of this predictable
resistance, it may be best to begin the humanizing effort at
the more benign end of the spectrum of deviant behavior. Once
students begin to accept that the deviance creating machinery
is extremely effective, and works equally well throughout the
full range of "deviant" and "criminal" behaviors, they have
taken the first step toward humanizing all actors in the
criminal justice system.
Never Thought I Was a Deviant"
(1978) warned of sociology's fascination with "Nuts, Sluts,
and Preverts." In contrast, a humanistic criminology course
presents an opportunity to exercise a great deal of creativity
in the selection of readings. One of my goals has been to
select topics that illustrate the machinery that creates
"deviants." A second goal is to illustrate that this machinery
is so effective that "normal" people, people very similar to
our students, can be efficiently defined as deviants.
of my students' favorite readings, which does not appear in
traditional deviant behavior texts, is a short story by Kurt
Vonnegut. Harrison Bergeron (Vonnegut, 1961) describes
a society in which everyone is equal. In Vonnegut's fictional
society, the state attempts to limit non normative behavior or
traits by creating "equality" through the use of "handicapping
devices" such as lead weights, face masks, and loud noises
intended to minimize logical thought. Harrison Bergeron is
a great introduction to the power to define certain behavior
or traits as unacceptable. The power to define, when coupled
with the power to sanction, is very intimidating. Students are
encouraged to look for examples, in today's society, where the
state has the power to define and sanction certain behaviors.
Their examples often include examples of "normal" people,
often through no fault of their own, being defined as deviant.
interesting reading describes an example of socially defined
deviance. Pearson (1987) writes about the Grateful Dead
phenomenon. While many students identify with this particular
form of behavior, others see the behavior of Deadheads as
quite deviant. Again, how can it be that something that some
define as "normal" is defined as "deviant" by others? Students
enjoy this topic and are often surprised to find that some in
our society have negative feelings about Deadheads.
and Hong (1989) discuss the creation and application of
definitions of deviance in relation to women bodybuilders.
Becker (1953) describes a process through which "normal"
people become marijuana users. Troyer and Markle (1984)
describe the emerging social problem of coffee drinking.
Petrunik and Shearing (1996) describe practices intended to
lessen the impact of negative views of stuttering. Each of
these readings provides a humanistic view of deviance and has
been well received by my students.
deviance and crime are seen as similar behavior, leading to
different social sanctions, students are able to see that a
major difference between deviance and crime is the degree to
which society blames the actor for his or her "unacceptable"
behavior. Students begin a move toward a humanist criminology
once they begin to recognize the mechanisms active in
assigning blame. These mechanisms, apparent throughout our
system of justice, separate "us" from "them."
Delinquents" Are Human Too
of the most humanistic criminology writings are the result of
qualitative research. For example, Goldstein (1990)
interviewed "delinquent" juveniles. Goldstein suggests that
the experience of being "delinquent" conveys expertise in
understanding delinquency. Goldstein's efforts to provide "ordinary
knowledge as a supplement to and, at times, even a
replacement for professional scientific knowledge"
(emphasis in original, 1990:3) provide a clear and
compassionate picture of the world of juveniles.
Currie (1992), in Dope and Trouble, follows a similar
path. He writes that he had learned a great deal through
personal interviews and that others would benefit from hearing
the stories, in their entirety, as told by the subjects of his
research. Currie felt "that it was only by hearing their own
stories that we could appreciate the complexity and uniqueness
of each of their lives" (1992:xii). This approach is
necessary, according to Currie, because stereotypes "mislead
us and hobble a rational approach to the problems of troubled
kids. They obscure the complexity of the forces that influence
the paths young people take" (1992:xii).
Goldstein, and others have engaged in ethnographic research
that allows us to develop a greater empathy for those who are
defined as deviant, delinquent, or criminal. This type of
research is a rich resource for anyone attempting to humanize
the criminal justice process. After reading such personal
stories only the most obstinate students will fail to
recognize that those who attract the attention of the criminal
justice system are not always so different from themselves.
less thoroughly researched area, and thankfully one that
generally does not include juvenile offenders, is the
phenomenon defined as "serial killing." In the following
section we turn our attention to the task of humanizing some
of the "least human" participants in our society.
might be imagined, this group can be extremely difficult to
humanize. One method that has been somewhat effective, and
very popular with students, has been to view serial killers or
other mass murderers as they have been depicted in film. One
of the most popular films, although I do not show it without
numerous disclaimers and the clearly elaborated opportunity to
miss class without fear of retribution, is Natural Born
Killers. The film's main characters, Mickey and Mallory,
are depicted as a violent couple with real, although unusual,
problems. The film pushes the viewer to wonder how these
individuals could have been created. The impact of violent
media messages, child abuse, education, and other
socialization events are outlined in the film. Students do not
believe, in spite of the film's title, that Mickey and Mallory
were born to live a murderous lifestyle. Instead, students
recognize that this lifestyle was the product of a
socialization process not totally dissimilar to their own.
film, a well done documentary directed by Nick Broomfield,
presents the human side of a female "serial killer." Aileen
Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, introduces us
to a woman who has killed at least seven men. The documentary
presents Wuornos as a victim of an uncaring criminal justice
system. She is represented by a greedy and incompetent
attorney, who would clearly prefer to be a rock star. Aileen's
"mother" demonstrates her love for her newly adopted daughter
by encouraging her to plead no contest to multiple murder. The
logic behind this plea, which is supported by the attorney, is
that this plea, and the resulting death penalty, will
accelerate the process through which Aileen will receive God's
ultimate forgiveness. Other players include police officers
who ignore evidence that would reduce the value of a story
they were attempting to sell to the networks.
Wuornos, an admitted prostitute who claims that she killed
these men because they were about to rape and kill her, is a
victim as well as offender. Students are shocked to learn
about her situation and question whether it is a true story.
The documentary effectively demonstrates the humanity of an
individual who has been victimized throughout much of her
life. The effectiveness of the dehumanizing ritual active
throughout the justice system is also apparent.
Some of Them Deserve to Die"
case of Aileen Wuornos is an obvious link to the issue of
capital punishment. Since nearly all death penalty writings,
at least those that spring from the scholarly community, are
in opposition to the death penalty, each may be helpful in a
humanist criminal justice course. These writings may offer
moral or religious arguments in opposition to the death
penalty. Others argue against the idea of general deterrence
(Archer et al., 1983). Others document the discriminatory
application of the death penalty (Baldus et al., 1986).
Another viewpoint, which avoids the problem associated with
humanizing murderers, is that a number of innocent humans have
been executed by the state (Bedau and Radelet, 1987).
strategy, which has been fairly successful in my teaching,
includes death row stories. Books by Dicks (1995) and Radelet
(1989) include a collection of stories from people on death
row. The narratives are offered by the condemned, those who
work on death row, the families of both victim and offender,
and from a variety of observers. Again, the words of those
involved in the system provide compassionate evidence in
support of a humanist criminology.
of my most effective attempts to humanize deviance and
criminology involved a campus and classroom visit from a
homeless man who had been an active member of the Hell's
Angels. He was an "enforcer," claimed to have taken several
lives, and had served time in prison. At the time of his
visit, he was no longer an active member of the Hell's Angels.
This man suffered from a genetic disorder that had forced him
to undergo over 300 surgeries. He was not physically
attractive in traditional terms. He was from a poor family and
had lived a violent life, in direct contrast to the students
at the exclusive liberal arts college he was visiting.
was reluctant to issue an invitation when the opportunity was
presented. I felt that his visit might be little more than a
"freak show." I was concerned that my students, who would see
this individual as very different from them, would move to the
"us" versus "them" mode of thinking. Fortunately, I
underestimated these students. They wanted to learn all they
could from this man. They treated him with dignity and honored
him with their sincere efforts to understand his life. A one
day visit from this man, much more like "them" than "us,"
taught over 100 individuals that the lives of "us" and "them"
are intricately intertwined.
paper briefly outlines specific strategies that can be
integrated into any criminal justice course. Along with these
strategies, the humanistic criminal justice educator should
always be on the lookout for simple stories or experiences
that illustrate the humanity of those who are caught up in our
system of justice. For example, a good friend of mine teaches
Adult Basic Education classes at a large state prison. This
prison is known for holding some of the state's most dangerous
prisoners. Several students in her class had just earned their
GED and the class was celebrating their success with a day
away from the books. The class greatly enjoyed a rousing game
of "Outburst." My students are always amused by the image of
"hardened criminals" laughing, joking around, and playing a
trivia game. Their amusement provides an opportunity to ask,
"why wouldn't they enjoy this game, it's a lot of fun isn't
it?" This simple story and question, with no further
elaboration needed, has a great deal of humanizing potential.
The "us" versus "them" machinery is stopped cold by the image
of murderers playing board games.
this is the right time to humanize criminology. Immarigeon
writes that "there are numerous cracks in the armor" that
protects a criminal justice policy that relies heavily on
repressive measures (1991:429). He argues that an "opening
therefore exists to challenge and organize against the
prevailing paradigm of justice" (1991:429). Criminology has
"too often served the violence of criminal justice" (Quinney,
1993:8). Change is unlikely unless we, as criminologists,
begin to challenge the dominant paradigm. This challenge need
not involve major policy statements or ground breaking
research. The tools to move toward a humanist criminology are
more subtle and are easily available. These tools can be used
to encourage future policy makers to resist pressures to
demonize offenders. Instilling this resistance may be the best
hope for creating a humanist, compassionate, and peaceful
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