Friday, April 30, 2010
Poor people constitute one of the most overrepresented categories of people in the criminal justice system. Why is that so? Unfortunately, we simply do not know, in large part because we have virtually no information that could provide an answer. As a result of that informational vacuum, policymakers either have ignored issues related to socioeconomic class, instead focusing on issues like drug addiction and mental illness as to which there are more data, or have developed fragmented policy that touches on socioeconomic class issues only tangentially. The bottom line is that without better data on the profile of poor defendants, coherent policy to address socioeconomic class issues simply will not be enacted. Because we lack data on socioeconomic class, we also cannot ascertain whether the system enforces criminal laws equally or whether it targets poor people. The inability to prove (or disprove) class discrimination prevents policymakers from enacting any solutions and leads to mistrust in the system.
This Article highlights the potential beneficial uses of general data on criminal defendants, and data on socioeconomic class of criminal defendants in particular. It goes on to document the data we currently have on socioeconomic class of criminal defendants, and the shortcomings both in our analysis of that data and in our data collection. Finally, the Article provides a roadmap for how states and the federal government should collect and analyze data on the socioeconomic class of criminal defendants.