Social Workers, Keeping Good Men Down: “Charged with a Crime” or “Pled Nolo Contendere”

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This post discusses various application forms, in the field of social work, that require applicants to indicate whether they have ever been charged with a crime or have ever pled no contest or nolo contendere to a criminal charge.

Background: The Nature of the System

Brame, Bushway, Paternoster, and Turner (2014, p. 2, early version) summarize certain criminological research within the United States as follows:

There is substantial research showing that arrested youth are not only more likely to experience immediate negative consequences [from being arrested] such as contact with the justice system, school failure and dropout, and family difficulties, but these problems are likely to reverberate long down the life course in terms of additional arrests, job instability, lower wages, longer bouts with unemployment, more relationship troubles, and long-term health problems including premature death.

While some such consequences no doubt follow from the attitudes or other aspects of the person in question, Brame et al. cite research suggesting that arrest, in itself, has identifiable negative consequences in certain regards, notably with respect to future employment opportunities. While the matter has apparently not been studied in detail, it would not be surprising if the fact of arrest also adversely affected future treatment from one’s peers and from principals, teachers, police, parents, and other authority figures.

Brame et al. then proceed to examine the arrest rates of young people. As reported in the Statistical Abstract of the United States (2012, p. 206, table 324), males in 2009 were four times more likely to be arrested than females. Their arrest rates were higher across virtually all categories of crime. In addition, Braume et al. cite FBI data indicating that black males were more than twice as likely as white males to be arrested. (Black females were not vastly more likely to be arrested than white females.) In their own dataset, Brame et al. report, 50% of black males and 38% of white males had been arrested at least once by age 23.

In matters of arrest, there are the clear-cut cases of criminal activity, and then there are the cases that are not so clear. Chris Rock narrates an amusing video titled “How Not to Get Your Ass Kicked by the Police.” In this video, he emphasizes several pieces of advice (e.g., obey the law; use common sense; be polite to the police). With all due regard for the poetic license required to make a funny video, the subtext is clear enough: the police arrest a lot of men, and have developed a reputation for beating them and worse (especially if they are black), for reasons that do not necessarily have much to do with actual violations of the law.

For most young people, the American system of criminal justice begins with decisions (often highly emotional decisions) made by police officers. Those officers are unlikely to have college degrees: while “many police departments have made college experience [i.e., at least some college-level coursework] an informal requirement for hiring and advancement,” the fact remains that only a tiny fraction of departments actually require a four-year degree (1%, as of 2007) (Paoline & Terrill, 2007, p. 181). According to Rydberg and Terrill (2010, pp. 110, 113), there is not yet enough good research to determine whether higher education improves police performance, with one exception: it is already clear that officers exposed to college education are significantly less likely to use force than are those without such exposure.

In practical terms, then, the career prospects of young people — young men, in particular — are constantly vulnerable to radical revision and even termination by police officers who are not generally qualified to decide what those young men’s prospects should be. Moreover, those officers typically make those decisions on the spur of the moment, often in reaction against what a young man looks like, what his values seem to be, and whether he seems to have an attitude that the officer rejects. The question here is not whether police officers and/or other authorities should have the ability to deter misbehavior and encourage good attitudes. The question is whether that sort of thing should be mixed up with decisions having lifelong career consequences.

One adage often heard in the 1990s and thereabouts was, “Do the crime, do the time.” There was tremendous faith in the system: the police arrest the right person, the prosecutor brings charges when the evidence warrants doing so, and the laws that the police and prosecutor enforce are the work of a wise legislature. This faith in the system was truly remarkable. For one thing, we had hundreds of years of English and American legal history to teach us the limits of trust in the authorities. The U.S. Constitution itself teaches us to be wary.

Even if we were looking solely at contemporary conditions, it was plain that, as the saying goes, those who love laws and sausages should not watch them being made. That is, legislators pass laws for all sorts of reasons, not always good or appropriate. Then, once passed, the laws become tools of the trade for prosecutors, who typically want to prove that they are not “soft on crime.” Prosecutors have long been sending low-income people to prison by the thousands, often without much concern for actual guilt. American society did not stop this, nor even seek to make it more just; nor did we pose determined objections when prosecutors declined to prosecute the higher-class types for similar behavior. In those cases, they knew, the road to conviction would be long and arduous — and even then, the jury might balk. Prosecutors become mayors by prosecuting faceless and voiceless small fry, assumed to be scum — not by pursuing unpopular and unsuccessful prosecutions of well-connected pillars of the community. Consider these quotes from a New York Times article:

[Apple Computer’s Steve] Jobs “was a walking antitrust violation,” said Herbert Hovenkamp, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law and an expert in antitrust law. “I’m simply astounded by the risks he seemed willing to take.” . . . Given Mr. Jobs’s immense popularity, prosecutors might not have wanted to risk a trial, Mr. Hovenkamp noted. . . . Mr. Isaacson added, “The rules just didn’t apply to him, whether he was getting a license plate that let him use handicapped parking or building products that people said weren’t possible. Most of the time he was right, and he got away with it.”

Mr. Lam of The Wirecutter said Mr. Jobs’s seeming indifference to the law wasn’t unusual in Silicon Valley. “Look at Bill Gates,” he said. “He was arrested for speeding and driving without a license. And Microsoft had its problems with antitrust law. It’s just a characteristic of young tech entrepreneurs to look at the rules and question them. You can’t get into this game without a healthy distaste for the status quo.”

Possibly the saddest thing about our justice system is that it is not focused upon the most damaging crimes. A visitor from another planet might guess that worship of the wealthy is part of our religion, judging not only from the preoccupations of many of our movies and TV shows but also from the incredible freedom from criminal responsibility that we grant to the rich. For many years now, we would not only arrest someone but actually send them to prison for smoking pot or stealing a hot dog; but meanwhile, there is hardly even serious contemplation of legal responsibility for bankers and others who steal billions in public funds. It is as though the blinders go on — as though no one could really consider holding such people responsible for their acts.

That legal free ride is not limited to the top one percent. An employer can operate a factory that jeopardizes the health and safety of its workers or the surrounding community; and yet, again, over the generations, there has tended to be little response. To use an example from a city where I used to live, the people who worked in the meat processing plant would have been locked up if they had ever cut someone’s finger off, but their employer was free to operate machines that actually did that and worse, for profit, with some frequency, with zero risk of criminal indictment. It was just assumed that his workers would suffer consequences that he, himself, would never experience. The American public has tended to see the law as a stern but fair master, when applied to teenagers, but as a bureaucratic impediment when applied to those who make jobs or make money. It does seem that better decisions would have been made, on both ends of that spectrum, if the public had been concerned with actual justice, applied equally to all.

So, you see, there’s the law, and then there’s the law. How could American public policy have come to accept such a patently bad and bigoted arrangement? The answer appears to be that, in recent, relatively plush decades, a complacent public was able to afford the expense ($23,000 per prisoner per year, according to Petersilia, 2011, p. 52) of essentially throwing away low-income undesirables who stepped out of line. Send them off to prison and let them rot: years for a minor crime, if that’s what the authorities say. In Gopnik’s (2012) words, “The more professionalized and procedural a system is, the more insulated we become from its real effects on real people.” For a long time now, there has not been much concern about convictions of those who cannot afford proper legal representation. Buying into hype about crazy people and serial killers, we have paid for an incarceration rate that is not merely higher than that of any other country in the world: it is actually more than 50% higher than in Russia, the next large nation on the list, and more than six times as high as in Canada, with which the U.S. shares many cultural similarities.

Criminal Law for Men and Women

Along with a disproportionate inclination to charge men with crimes, there has been an assumption that prisons are appropriate for men but not for women. For generations, men have been sent off en masse to facilities that, in some cases, could pass muster in a movie set in the Middle Ages. Quoting Gopnik (2012) again, “Prison rape is so endemic—more than seventy thousand prisoners are raped each year—that it is routinely held out as a threat, part of the punishment to be expected.”

As in so many things, social work education tends to echo the general conservatism of the American public in such regards. For example, Larance (2006, p. 623) has little to say on behalf of men caught up in the justice system, but expresses chivalric concern for women who do so:

[B]attered women were now becoming involved in the legal system as perpetrators for their use of force in intimate relationships. JBWS staff grew particularly concerned because those who desperately needed services — the women who use force — were becoming lost in the controversy between the criminal justice system, child protective services, researchers, advocates, and practitioners.

Realistically, one must ask: what controversy? Things are clear enough: violent offenders get locked up. If that is not a good policy, don’t promote sexist arguments against it; fix it for everyone.

It would have been encouraging if Larance, whom I met in circumstances involving abuse of male clients, had expressed fair and equal concern for incarcerated men. But no. What got the attention of this sort of social worker was the advent of “mandatory and dual arrests” (Kernsmith & Kernsmith, 2009, p. 341). The concept here is that, starting in the late 1980s, police increasingly charged both parties with a crime, in cases of domestic violence, rather than try to figure out who the original instigator might be. At that point, criminalization became a concern for women too — “arrest rates for men had doubled, but arrest rates for women were 10 times higher” (Kernsmith & Kernsmith, p. 342) — and then, what do you know, suddenly these social workers are dissatisfied with criminal law arrangements that had been victimizing males for eons.

To be sure, the rising female arrest rates were not due solely to the mandatory and dual arrest scheme. There was also evidence that women had become more likely to use violence. Also, as detailed in another post, men tend to underreport violence, particularly in the relatively mild forms that constitute the bulk of female complaints. The physical violence that men report is more likely to involve the use of weapons and serious bodily injury.

Traditionally, there has been a reluctance to hold women responsible for criminal behavior. Male judges, and other men in positions of power, have often indulged traditional notions of gallantry. In addition, women have tended to support one another against male behavior that they perceive as threatening or even merely undesirable. The public has adopted a deference to women — often perceived as e.g., our mothers, the weaker sex, the fair sex — comparable to the public deference to the rich and powerful: these are just not the sorts of people that you would put into a hard, cold jail cell. Jail is for “othering,” for distancing oneself from unpleasant, inferior, and/or alien creatures: it is like a barn, where you put the cows and keep them penned up.

In criminal law, social work academics like Larance and the Kernsmiths have been reluctant to grant men a full and equal right to live in this society. For instance, both suggest that intimate partner violence by women tends to be morally defensible. As the Kernsmiths put it (p. 343), “female use of force is commonly a response to ongoing abuse by a partner”; in their view, a proper approach “balances addressing a woman’s needs as a victim and the need for her to be accountable for her own behavior in a supportive environment.” But what about holding men accountable in a comparably supportive environment? What about the Kernsmiths’ own acknowledgement, on the same page, that retaliation is “an important motivator” of female violence? What about men and women who do not fit these stereotypes? What about the fact that (as admitted in the Kernsmith quote just given) these are rarely situations in which a woman was violently attacked without any prior episodes or warning signs: should accountability not include the fact that the women in question generally decided to remain in — may, in fact, have instigated — the altercations in question?

In addition, to continue with another consideration introduced above, who wrote these laws? Much of the criminal law is ancient; powerful men were almost always its prime shapers. Now, as always, powerful men have had an interest in suppressing other males, and a concomitant interest in retaining the positive regard of females generally. It would be nice if the women newly arriving in positions of power had changed this. That, however, has not been an obvious consequence of the rise of women over the past two generations. Consistent with the foregoing remarks about Larance et al., what I have heard from elite women has tended to consist of endorsements of the status quo — of unquestioning acquiescence, that is, in the belief that the men in prison and otherwise targeted by the law must be bad people who deserve to be marked for life.

Finally, what did the powerful men of legal tradition choose to criminalize? Not stereotypically female behavior. There was no need for that; women were perceived as having little power and being of little consequence. The people who threatened the rulers were predominantly the men, who could and sometimes did take physical action to rob, assault, and kill men of the upper classes. We might have a very different criminal law if we were to create a new one, from scratch, to address contemporary conditions. Consider, for instance, the claim that “both sexes use relational and more direct forms of aggression at similar rates, and [both sexes] rate relational or indirect aggression as more hurtful than the more direct forms” (Krueger, Rao, Salzer, & Saucerman, 2011, p. 1). Such a claim seems to call for a criminal law that would focus especially upon relational rather than physical aggression, to the extent that the former does indeed do greater damage. In that case, one would apparently have to expect that female arrest and conviction rates would match or perhaps exceed those of males; and as a result we might experience less of the most terribly destructive interpersonal behaviors, just as now we experience relatively low levels of street crime.

Social Work Education as a Creator and Perpetuator of Legal Stigma

The foregoing remarks have been somewhat abstract. Let me begin, now, to bring them around to my personal experience. As noted in other posts, I tend to rely upon personal tales as a result of my legal training: I believe that people often do the best job of advancing a viewpoint when they have a personal stake in it. I also find it less likely that an extended debate will be squelched by introduction of a fact question that I cannot answer, if the facts at issue are my own rather than someone else’s.

Before proceeding to describe the personal experience in question, let me respond briefly with a separate bit of personal experience related to the point just made, about relational aggression. A modified criminal law could be very beneficial to me personally, particularly in my dealings with social work academia. On one hand, I have rarely received physical beatings in this life. I do not think I was in much danger of physical violence from faculty in the schools of social work where I studied. But I was in enormous danger, and did incur a great deal of professional and personal damage, as a result of the relational violence practiced against me by faculty and administrators in the schools of social work at Indiana University and elsewhere. If American criminal law had been framed by people like me, rather than by rich ancient men seeking to protect themselves and their possessions, there would assuredly have been greater recognition of the insidious damage that can be done without fraud or force.

Some may assume that, if I was really wronged at IU, I could have just sued. This assumption is not easy to make, once you get some experience with how the courts work. More than 95% of American lawsuits, civil and criminal alike, do not even reach the point of trial. Lawsuits are almost invariably terminated before that point for various reasons, including especially legal fees. I, unlike those professors, would not have taxpayers paying my legal fees. Generally, as documented extensively and repeatedly in connection with my experiences at IU, the law is simply not set up to provide appropriate outcomes for the large majority of Americans. In its overwhelming focus upon stereotypically male and simplistically lower-class acts of physical violence, the criminal law may move aggressively against the man (but not necessarily the woman) who hits someone, even if no harm is done; but the criminal law will not lift a finger when social work professors at IU gratuitously decide to destroy someone’s career.

My account of the situation at Indiana University makes clear that faculty there used their power to ostracize me without reason or explanation, to withhold appropriate grades, and to misrepresent me and my qualifications, in violation of several laws and numerous academic and professional codes. This relational aggression constituted a sad continuation of the trauma and stigmatization I had experienced in the school of social work at the University of Missouri – Columbia, where certain individuals eagerly falsified my role in a domestic violence situation, making me out to be the perpetrator rather than the victim. As with the perversion of real diversity-mindedness by social work academia, this was the behavior of people who have nothing against interpersonal abuse per se; they just want to be able to dish it out rather than to receive it.

I offer those remarks, about IU and Missouri, to emphasize that social work academia (as distinct from genuine social work) is comfortable with the creation and perpetuation of stigma. Professors in such places are not inclined (or at least not officially inclined) to stigmatize someone on grounds of being gay or black. They may be prepared, however, to stigmatize people on grounds of being male or white — or for that matter (referring, again, to my own observation, supported by some research) not fitting in other ways (e.g., being fundamentalist Christians; having a mental disability) — particularly if the targets of their stigma are disempowered students as distinct from powerful faculty members or public officials of whom they approve. With very few exceptions, it was especially clear that we were to pay lip service to the thought that America incarcerates too many black males, but we were not to carry our deprecation to the point of criticizing the older feminist or middle-American perspectives underlying that incarceration. Those guys were black, and thus deserved our sympathy; but they were also said to be criminals, and that was the trump card in terms of our actual attention to their situations.

Making It Personal

To review, the preceding sections of this post have made several points: police have excessive power to stigmatize people for life; the people so stigmatized are overwhelmingly male; it is no coincidence that males have been overwhelmingly targeted despite evidence that destructive behavior is spread rather evenly across both sexes; and social work professors have tended to have little concern for any of this, at least until it begins to affect women.

These points become a matter of personal experience when I find myself required to report on my own contacts with the criminal law. Note, by the way, that restraining orders are not directly connected with criminal procedure. As described in a separate post on another event from my own experience, males can be subjected to restraining orders for absurd reasons and contrary to actual evidence. The classic example given there is the one where a court essentially ordered David Letterman, in his studio in New York, to stop beaming his thoughts through the TV set to a woman in New Mexico.

Now we move into an account of a different personal experience. Now I am not simply neglected by lawmakers; now I am the focus of attention by authorities who are all too eager to hale me into court, the moment I step out of line. In this case, I was haled into court because I was the victim.

It happened like this. I was living with my girlfriend. One day, she slapped me. She did that because I was trying to talk to her about her behavior. She had some wild propensities — for instance, in an episode several months earlier, it developed that she had cheated on me — but I continued to nurse the hope or belief, perhaps misguided, that she could be persuaded to act like an intelligent person and work with me when we disagreed.

When she slapped me, I asked, “Why is that better than talking?” She didn’t like that response, so she slapped me again. I, in turn, was not particularly impressed with her response, so I asked the question again. She slapped me again; I asked again; and so forth.

She slapped me 15 times altogether. I asked 16 times. You could say that I won. I wasn’t quite feeling that way, however. I was more concerned with my bleeding lip, partially black eye, and broken glasses. I guess we had established that she felt entitled to hit me, rather than talk to me, when she got mad.

I called the police. I wasn’t sure what would happen when they arrived, but in this case it did seem that at least my physical condition would probably dissuade them from inventing some cockamamie excuse to haul me, the male, off to jail.

I was not entirely right about that. When they arrived, the two officers split up. One of them interviewed my girlfriend inside our apartment. The other took me outside. I told him the story. He said that the policy of their department was to charge both parties with a crime, in domestic violence cases. It was a dual arrest policy (above), but not a mandatory one. That is, they didn’t have to charge anyone. They would probably have hauled me away without much ado, if I had been the one doing the hitting; but when the assailant was the woman, they were content to leave it up to me to decide whether to file charges. And if I did file charges, they were going to charge me too.

A person might wonder what they would accuse me of. There is an answer to that question. For me, the charge would be Harassment. The city’s criminal code defined harassment as certain behavior undertaken “with intent to harass, annoy, or alarm another person.” The specific behavior cited by the police, when they did charge me, applied only when the defendant “[r]epeatedly insults, taunts, or challenges another in a manner likely to provoke a violent or disorderly response.”

In other words, within the facts of the particular situation, I could only be charged with harassment, under the code section cited by the police, if I repeatedly challenged my girlfriend, in a manner likely to provoke a violent response, with the intention of harassing her. This charge would have some obvious problems:

  • Circular reference: harassment requires a repeated challenge with the intent of harassing. Could someone please define “harass”?
  • The claim that my behavior would be likely to provoke a violent response. Asking someone, “Why is this better than talking?” is not ordinarily likely to provoke a violent response. Anything could provoke violence from a crazy person, but that hardly makes you an automatic criminal. Yes, it could be argued that I should have shut up; but it could also be argued, for the sake of her 10-year-old daughter, that I should definitely not send a message that violence would ever have the upper hand in our home.
  • The requirement of intent: the question, “Why is this better than talking?” is unlikely to be asked for purposes of harassing anyone. It is most likely asked with the intent of suggesting a peaceable alternative. While the concept is commonly forgotten in the practice of contemporary criminal law in America, guilt is supposed to be established beyond a reasonable doubt, and there would certainly be a reasonable doubt here.

In short, there was not actually a violation that the cops could appropriately charge me with. They just made something up. They could do that, as I was about to learn, because a criminal defense attorney would advise me to accept whatever kind of plea bargain they were offering. They just had to take one look around our apartment complex to conclude that I would probably not be able to afford to hire someone to defend me at trial. They could have charged me with trying to climb the Empire State Building. It didn’t matter. As that attorney told me, it was just not worth the risk of going into court, because (as in the David Letterman example, above) you can never predict what some judge might do to you — if, say, s/he doesn’t like your looks.

But let’s back up for a moment. Why would I file charges against my girlfriend — assault was the charge that the officers chose in her case — if I knew that doing so would result in criminal charges against me? The answer is quite simple: the cops lied to me. The officer I was talking to assured me that my girlfriend and I had the option of dropping the charges against each other. I confirmed that with him repeatedly. It was absolutely crystal-clear that we could drop the charges. There was no doubt about it. So I went ahead with it. In my view, at this point, she could either live with the charges or learn to handle her irritation constructively. I was sure that she would be willing to talk to me, and I was right: she was, and that was the last time she hit me.

But now there was a new problem. Fast-forward to the day when the girlfriend and I have talked about it, and we are prepared to drop the charges. I call the police station and — what’s this? The person on the phone says no, they definitely do not drop the charges just because the accuser decides to do so. We were charged with crimes, and we were going to remain charged. They refused to drop the charges against me even when the girlfriend submitted a letter stating that she did not believe I intended to harass, annoy, or alarm her, with an explanation of what she believed was actually happening.

Granted, if you were the police, you might hesitate to drop charges if you feared that the victim was coerced into writing that sort of letter. But realistically, what kind of coercion was I going to employ? I was getting charged, in the first place, because I had insisted that she talk to me. What evil threat might I be subjecting her to now — maybe I would refuse to rub her back unless she wrote the letter?

In an earlier section of this post, I noted that social workers started to pay attention to arrests when arrests started happening to women in large numbers, and that some of this was due to the emergence of dual arrest schemes. I am glad to see that social workers finally began to take this problem seriously, but I am sorry that it took this to achieve that. The dual arrest concept was brain-dead. People, male and female alike, are already afraid to call the cops, even when they are getting beaten — so what do you do? You add the disincentive that they, too, will be charged with a crime. Not to deny the complexities of the literature on this subject, but it seemed ridiculous.

So they offered me 90 days’ probation in exchange for a plea of nolo contendere. The assumptions built into the system were briefly revealed when Nina, the probation officer, met with me to explain the situation. “You are here,” she said, “because you assaulted” — looking at her papers, pausing, and then continuing — “because you were assaulted . . . .” What they gave me was a “diversion” program, where the court hearing on the harassment charge would be postponed until the 90 days were up. If I completed the probation without any further incidents, the city would “consent to dismissal of the charges against the defendant, withdrawing the plea made by the defendant.” In other words, the whole thing would just sort of go away. I could spend the rest of my life skulking around, hoping nobody would find out. It would be our dirty little secret, just between the city and me.

Or would it? I don’t know — and I’m a lawyer. Legal training or no, if you don’t practice in a particular area of the law — in this case, the criminal law — then your opinion about what is happening is likely to be just an educated guess. There are enormous details, endless numbers of case decisions, informing almost any word or concept you may encounter. It can take days of legal research to arrive at a clear understanding of the state of the law on a given point — and sometimes the clear understanding you reach is just that the courts are divided or the standards remain vague.

Stigma via Social Work Applications

So what was I to say, when I saw that various state licensing boards wanted to know whether an applicant for a social work license (e.g., LMSW, LCSW) had ever been charged with a crime or had ever pled nolo contendere? On one hand, yes, of course, obviously I had been charged with harassment and had pleaded n.c. in response. On the other hand, the city had assured me that the charges would be dismissed and my plea would be withdrawn, once I successfully completed those 90 days of probation, which I did. From that perspective, no, I guess I hadn’t actually been charged, in a real and permanent sense, and maybe the withdrawal of a plea would have the legal effect of never being made?

These were good questions to spend a few hundred dollars on, seeking the opinion of a lawyer that might be right or wrong, or correct in one state but incorrect in another. Another approach, as you see, was to write up a blog post, presenting this convoluted and sometimes absurd state of affairs in its full glory. In some states, no guesswork was necessary; for example, Iowa’s application form made clear that

You must answer ‘Yes’ [to the question of whether you have ever “Been convicted, found guilty of or entered a plea of guilty or no contest to a felony or misdemeanor crime (Other than minor traffic violations with fines under $500)”] even when a conviction or judgment has been deferred or expunged from your record.

I had already written up a post on this topic in a different context, involving applications to graduate programs at the University of Georgia. Their application question likewise asked whether the applicant had ever been charged with a crime or had pleaded nolo contendere. That post summarized some of the points elaborated above — observing that, in essence, their question was whether a police officer had ever decided to charge me with a crime. Or maybe not exactly that. Because in my case, the police hadn’t actually caught me doing something wrong. As shown above, the charge of harassment didn’t even apply. The police had responded to my call and, according to their rules, had charged me only because I had decided to charge my girlfriend.

That other post, presenting a memo that I sent to the graduate school at Georgia, pointed out a few facts not repeated above: that there are 13 times as many men as women in prison, for example, and that men are significantly more likely than women to be victims of crime. These are not the sorts of things that one commonly hears in social work classrooms. My review of Georgia’s course offerings raised the question of whether they (like those social work courses) might be conveying the false impression that crime is primarily something that men do to women.

That memo specifically asked why Georgia would ask about the filing of charges (as distinct from convictions), when any fool knows that charges are disproportionately filed against minorities and lower-income people. Those Georgia academics were not stupid people. They were surely aware — in any case, I made them aware — that the language of their application form was “especially likely to tag, as potential undesirables, those who come from demographic groups that are already relatively scarce in higher education.”

Sadly, the people at Georgia did not respond to my remarks and, last time I checked, their application form had not changed. This was surprising, if one takes seriously their claim to be proud of their tradition of public service, and their description of their initiative “to address the widening gap in college access for low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented students in Georgia.” I had to wonder whether perhaps these things were just for show. Maybe they just meant to say, “See, we’re not bigots” while continuing, in practice, to favor only those disadvantaged applicants who had managed to be white and middle-class enough to never be targeted by a police officer.

It was not necessary to ask the question that Georgia asked. To its credit, the school of social work at the University of Michigan did not ask me that question on its MSW application form. Their question was simply this:

Have you ever been convicted of a criminal offense other than a minor traffic violation, or been found to be delinquent by a juvenile court, or are there such charges pending against you at this time?

Similarly, to compare a northern state and a southern state that I have already discussed somewhat in a previous post, the social work licensing application form in Texas did ask the full question — “Have you ever been convicted, pled guilty, or pled no lo contendere [sic] to any misdemeanor or felony other than juvenile offenses or misdemeanor traffic violations?” — while Michigan’s form asked only about actual convictions involving substance abuse, serious misdemeanors (i.e., maximum prison term of two years), and felonies.

There is, no doubt, a public interest in making sure that licensing authorities are informed of important facts about applicants, so as to investigate potentially troublesome histories. But this is not about that. This is about the decision to cast a much broader net. No principle or objective exists in a vacuum. Imagine a question like, “Are you a short male?” or “Have any of your relatives served in a military force fighting against the United States?” It would not be surprising if such questions deterred some people from applying at all, and gave rise to a concern, in others, that they might be operating under a cloud of suspicion. The urge to ask broad questions, or to single out certain categories of persons for special scrutiny, needs to be balanced against the objective of avoiding undesirable and unethical collateral effects.

Conclusion

This post discusses certain crime-oriented questions that appear on some social work education and licensing application forms. Key points in the foregoing remarks include the following:

  • The American criminal legal system confuses simple crimefighting with lifelong judgments about the career-worthiness of people who come into contact with that system, often placing both into the hands of police officers and other law enforcement figures who lack sufficient training and information to make such sweeping judgments.
  • From the police on up, the system is grossly skewed toward naming, attacking, and stigmatizing damaging acts typically committed by males and lower-class people, while overlooking types of damaging behavior typically committed by females and higher-class people.
  • The expensive “othering” of lower-class men accused of crime might not have been able to persist so long, and to so great an extent, if communities had kept women and higher-class people responsible for their own damaging behavior and aware of events around them. It appears that we may have achieved an ineffective and inappropriate criminal justice system, in part, by placing its keys in the hands of people who spend much of their lives in the privileged, isolated, narrowminded, and inward-looking conditions of the suburban lifestyle.
  • Social work, as a fundamentally conventional profession, has substantially endorsed the unethical and sometimes inhumane conditions that men have long endured in prisons and elsewhere in the law enforcement system, and has facilitated the free ride that higher-class people have obtained vis-à-vis the legal system, coming to attention only upon the large-scale entry of women into that system.

These points culminate in the apparently bigoted and/or ignorant decision to stigmatize anyone who has been cited by the police — in, that is, the implicit assumption that criminal charges are not often unjust or nonsensical. Such an assumption is typically easy for those who fall within strata typically favored by the police in putatively crime-related situations (notably white, female, and higher-class). That is, the people who put such questions on application forms evidently lack personal experience with the situation of the person thereby targeted, and thus cannot understand what I am saying.

Somehow, in an educational environment, the response to this apparent reality seems to be not to ask questions or to try to understand. Some of that may ensue from the environment found within schools of social work. In those places, stigma is not rejected per se, as an undesirable consequence of a mindset that reserves the right to single out certain types of people for negative treatment. Stigma is only rejected where it impinges upon specific, favored categories of persons. In a school of social work, you cannot stigmatize someone for being gay or female or black, but you may be able to stigmatize them for being male or being accused of a crime.

The purpose of this post is not to argue for the complete elimination of stigma, but rather for its sparing and cautious use. I suggest that, in genuine social work, people and their concerns are accepted and taken seriously across the board, with rare and narrow exceptions justified by the realities of particular circumstances. Even a felony conviction, in itself, is not a basis for broad-brush rejection, or for the implication that such rejection looms: to anticipate a separate discussion, there is an essential question of whether a fair and uniform (albeit presently nonexistent) rehabilitative scheme has somehow failed to achieve the expected reintegration into society.

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