The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution promises equal protection under the law for all citizens: Federal and state criminal justice systems ought to regard social factors such as class, race, nationality, religion, and sex as irrelevant to the administration of the law (blind justice). Tradition- ally, criminologists and political activists have exam- ined whether this important principle of equal protection really governs the way suspects, defen- dants, and convicts are treated by officials and agen- cies. The main focus of concern has been whether poor or minority offenders are subjected to discrim- inatory treatment. Whether certain kinds of victims are handled in a discriminatory manner is an equally significant concern but it has escaped notice.

It is often said that the United States is a coun- try “ruled by laws, not men.” This maxim implies that the principles of due process and equal protec- tion limit the considerable discretionary powers of criminal justice officials. Due process means pro- cedural consistency (following all the required steps) and equal protection require that different categories of people be treated similarly. Yet enough discretion remains at each stage in the crim- inal justice process to generate unequal outcomes. Of course, those who do exercise discretion can and do justify their actions. Explanations range from practical considerations about time and money to philosophical rationales about the true meaning of justice. Nevertheless, the actions they take generate, maintain, and reveal double standards, or more accurately (because sometimes more than two groups are involved) differential handling, rang- ing from exemplary service and support for some to second-class treatment for others.


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Recognizing “Second-Class” Treatment

The wife of a wealthy doctor disappears while walk- ing her dog. The police launch a massive search, hold a press conference, assign two dozen detectives to work full time to canvass the affluent neighborhood, circulate flyers, and try to pick up her trail with a bloodhound. Her body later is found floating in the river, but it cannot be determined if she fell in, jumped in, or was pushed. Less than two months later, a shy and studious African American college student never returns from running an errand in a working-class immigrant neighborhood. Her mother calls 911 the next morning, and two officers fill out a missing persons report—reluctantly, saying that because she is 21 years old, they really are not sup- posed to. Once 24 hours have elapsed, a detective marks the case closed. The family appeals to local elected officials, and after a few days the police department reopens the case. But it is too late— during that time two kidnappers who torture and rape her in a dingy basement a few blocks away decide to kill her. A federal judge permits the victim’s mother to file a lawsuit alleging bias in the police depart- ment’s response, based on the race, class, and age of the missing person. (Gardiner, 2008)

Many social institutions have two or more tracks and deliver unequal services to their clients or consumers. For instance, the health care system does not treat all patients the same; some get higher quality medical attention than others. Similarly, the school system does not provide all students with equal educational opportunities. Some are chal- lenged, nurtured, and as a result excel, while others are discouraged, neglected, and consequently fail to reach their academic potential.

A systematic examination of how cases are pro- cessed by the criminal justice system must address a crucial question. Now that victims have rights and are no longer routinely overlooked, do some get better service than others?

Criminologists have documented the discrep- ancy between official doctrines and actual practices. For example, race and class ought to be extraneous factors in a system of “blind justice,” but, in reality, they are useful predictors of how officials respond

to offenders. When victimologists pieced together scattered research findings about how different cat- egories of victims were treated, a comparable pic- ture emerged. Certain victims were more likely to be given first class or VIP treatment, while others tended to be neglected, abused, and treated as second-class complainants by the same agencies and officials. In other words, how a case was han- dled was determined by the victim’s as well as the offender’s social standing, in addition to the cir- cumstances surrounding the crime.

The findings of many independent studies car- ried out decades ago are summarized in Box 7.5. They yield a profile of the groups of people who in the past tended to be treated far better or much worse than others. Victims who were innocent and from respectable backgrounds and privileged strata were more likely to receive better service from police officers, prosecutors, juries, and judges. Individuals whose backgrounds were tarnished or who came from disadvantaged groups were less likely to get favorable treatment.

Many social handicaps that have held people back in life also impede their ability to receive fair treatment as crime victims. The same discretionary powers that result in overzealous law enforcement in some communities contribute to lax enforce- ment in others. Apparently, calls for help from members of groups that traditionally have suffered discrimination were not perceived as entirely legiti- mate or as compelling by some at the helm of the criminal justice system. The credibility of complai- nants from disadvantaged backgrounds often was eroded by a belief that these same people were the wrongdoers in other incidents. Such stereotyp- ical responses by the authorities poisoned relations between the two camps.

From bitter experience, individuals from the lower strata, and “out groups” marginalized because of their unconventional lifestyles have anticipated that their requests for intervention would be greeted with suspicion or even hostility. They expected perfunctory treatment at best. As a conse- quence, they have turned to the criminal justice system only under the most desperate circumstances (Ziegenhagen, 1977).

240 CH APT ER 7

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The manner in which police and prosecutors respond to homicides provides some clear examples of differential handling. When a “very important person” is murdered, the police department comes under tremendous pressure from the media, elected officials, and powerful constituencies within the public to arrest someone quickly. To give an

illustration, a highly publicized robbery and murder of a foreign visitor was so threatening to Florida’s multibillion-dollar tourist trade that local business interests and the Chamber of Commerce generated tremendous pressure to apprehend whoever was preying upon vacationers (see Rohter, 1993; and Boyle, 1994). But when an “undesirable” is slain,

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