Part of America’s national identity, culture, and global legacy is the preeminence the individual. Americans root for underdogs. The American Dream celebrates the power of the individual to determine his or her own destiny. To be American is to transcend your parents, your birthplace, your starting point in life. Whatever bits of identity you inherit are less important to your future than the choices you make over the course of your life.
The flipside to this emphasis on individual agency is a clumsy, narrow-minded, sometimes destructive approach to accountability–or, more often, blame–that can have the effect of harming society as a whole. Those who find themselves being funneled through the criminal justice system–or forcibly marginalized by it–know this all too well. But they aren’t the only ones subject to this misdirected notion of American individualism.
Consider, for example, the conflicting attitudes we have about obesity.
Society creates a framework that makes it incredibly difficult to make good dietary choices.
Walking down virtually any aisle of your local grocery store, the options on display are overwhelmingly processed, unhealthy, and marketed using the best science of emotion, psychology, and manipulation available. You can certainly find plain, unsweetened DIY oatmeal, but only if you navigate an ocean of brightly colored, animal-mascoted, sugar-coated cereals first.
Restaurants are the same: for every diner serving up sensible portions of nutritionally balanced, responsibly sourced meals, there are a dozen or more fast food assembly lines packing calories and questionable contents into dollar menus and doggie bags.
The cultural context for all food and dietary choices in the United States is one which disproportionately favors the cheap, the easy, and by default the unhealthy. Certainly, a highly motivated person could weigh the options, sniff out the affordable, health-conscious grocers and restaurants, and commit to a healthier lifestyle. But social pressure is more than the food displayed at eye-level: choice is confounded by the realities of limited time and unlimited demands–school, family, friends, work, commuting, etc. Fast food thrives because American life is fast-paced whether you like it or not. We’ve created a culture that makes us unhealthy.
Obesity–along with a slew of other chronic health conditions that all stem from obesity–should hardly come as a surprise, given the inputs. Yet far from taking accountability for the problem as a nation, it is still in vogue to point out how every individual ought to know better, and could feasibly have made better choices to avoid getting fatter and sicker. And as we point fingers, we collectively pay the healthcare bills to respond to something we should have been trying harder to prevent.
Obesity and crime are incredibly similar: when we focus on the individual, all we let ourselves see are the choices, the personal failures, the isolated moments that all combined and led to a negative outcome. We’ve designed systems of judgement to enforce this fixation on the individual, at the expense of the community and the country.
We may know that zip codes correlate with relative opportunity, education level, lifetime earning potential, and especially overall health. Such correlations are even the basis for crime-mapping software and computer-aided emergency dispatch systems: location data literally predicts the future. But we still tend to put our faith in a criminal justice system that punishes the individual for what we assume were a series of poor personal choices.
We know that our prisons are overcrowded and expensive to maintain–or expand–yet we continue to feed the system with tax dollars and more prisoners. Clearly, the punishments associated with our criminal justice system are not sufficient deterrents to end crime. Likewise, knowing that our nation is getting fatter every year doesn’t stop people lining up in their cars for dollar cheeseburgers and bottomless soft drinks. We manage these problems by mentioning them, not addressing them, because that requires large-scale social and cultural change.
Criminal justice professor Edward Latessa, knows how hard real change is to achieve.
“We can change offender behavior, we just need to go about it the right way. And let me preface this by saying, it’s not easy to change behavior. If you think it is, try changing your own. It’s very difficult to give up a bad habit, or to start to do things differently. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
Latessa’s comments came as he summarized some of his research into reducing recidivism during a lecture for the University of Cincinnati’s online criminal justice program, which he directs.
As Latessa explained, criminal behaviors are not the result of a closed-system of decision making, but rather of a collection of inputs, “risk factors,” which are as useful in predicting crime as they would be in assessing a patient’s risk of a heart attack.
Deprived of sufficient opportunity–to grow up insulated from violence, to enter college and grow a professional network, to plan for the future rather than for the next meal, to learn from mistakes, to develop a decision-making toolkit that examines consequences and appreciates how behavior impacts the lives of others–people will make do with what they have. The risk factors are social, cultural, and they compound one another in a way that makes crime a predictable (if not inevitable) outcome.
This is how criminal activity becomes a habit for millions of individuals: not as a conscious choice to be antisocial or laugh at society’s laws, but as a lifestyle born of necessity, and opportunity.
Our law enforcement system doesn’t take opportunity–or lack thereof–into account when doling out judgement and punishment, neither of which is particularly designed to remedy the causal factors that led to crime in the first place. When someone says that the scales of justice are blind, they don’t really mean blind to identity–that is measurably false–but they might truthfully refer to justice being blind to context, to the unequal playing field of society, and the cultural factors that determine who is subjected to the flaws of criminal justice system in the first place.
Changing the system requires a different approach to law enforcement entirely.
“Effective behavioral interventions are action-oriented, not talk oriented,” Latessa explained. “If you stop and think about it, if I want to change your behavior, how could I go about doing that? One is I could educate you about it, teach you about drugs, teach you about violence—not a very effective way to change people’s behavior. I could try to scare you, threaten you, tell you all the bad things I’m going to do to you. Problem is, that doesn’t work.”
Real change comes from learning new habits, new skills, new ways to think rather than new things to think about. Awareness of the consequences of eating too much fast food still has to compete with the ease and convenience of drive-thrus; knowing that cops are out there doesn’t help lift people out of poverty or walk back centuries of social injustice.
Latessa was talking about reducing recidivism, helping those already in the corrections system find a new way forward when (or if) they get out. Skills development programs–pro-social efforts to change behaviors, mindsets, and habits–are growing in popularity as an alternative to prison, slowly, across the country. That holds promise for those who have already been sucked into the prison pipeline, but it doesn’t change the system that funnels people into that pipeline on an unequal, unaccountable basis.
We prosecute crime with the same mentality that leads to the commission of crime: when it is easiest, or when an opportunity presents itself. Crimes of opportunity are met with prosecutions of convenience.
If we were really interested in prevention, in helping more people before they go before the justice system or face law enforcement officials, we would pull back and look at the problem not as the effect of poor personal choices, but the result of a culture that treats everyone as equally empowered, autonomous, and privileged, when they are not.
Our culture and society are responsible for creating the opportunities that individuals must then choose from. Until we do a better job of managing the way opportunity, and genuine alternatives, are spread around the country, we are wasting our time holding individuals accountable for the choices made for them by the group.