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Americans, Criminals, and Thelma & Louise

Still from “Thelma and Louise.”

With criminal justice, “benefit of the doubt”, in a sense, is integral to the idea of presumed innocence before proven guilt. Socially, people who have broken the law are thought of as nothing more than scum. Many Americans have, essentially, internally dehumanized the people whom the State considers utterly-despicable degenerates, even if they didn’t actually harm anyone else, such as all the drug users who occupy our prisons. Yes, mercy has often been a lacking trait among an unfortunately sizable chunk of the populace. This is not to say that every prisoner is innocent and good at heart, there are certainly some people who deserve to be incarcerated.

That said, it seems that there exists, in America, a sort of religion: it is the dogmatic and regressive religion of so-called “law and order”. Adherents of this belief system have long succeeded in convincing the nation of their ideals’ efficacy in controlling the people; it is growing ever-the-more popular, with devoted followers who preach the greatness of their faith with vigor and passion. Those who do not subscribe to their creed are not labeled “sinners” or “infidels”. No, no. Upon the detractors of their sacred faith, a much more powerful, Earth-shaking term is hurled instead – “soft on crime”.

It seems a bit odd that so many never offer criminals the “benefit of the doubt”, yet so much of our art is based on the theme of characters committing illegal acts due to unfortunate circumstance. Many Americans will pay no concern for the cruelty and suffering that our society’s criminals face, with some outwardly desiring such abuse and more; yet this same “tough on crime” culture frequently sympathizes with fictional criminals in film and television. In 1991, we all rooted for Louise Sawyer and Thelma Dickinson (portrayed by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis) as they were committing a series of crimes including armed robbery and possibly murder (though I would’ve considered it self-defense) in Thelma & Louise. We saw our own personal struggles in this pair, and the film is now thought of as a classic, due in large part to its timeless story. Seeing the trials of these characters play out on screen made the viewer recognize them as humans, people like themselves making mistakes and facing hardships. When people were exposed to the full picture, they saw that Thelma had been emotionally abused by her husband, and sexually assaulted by a man in a parking lot. They saw how the duo got tricked and robbed by J.D. (portrayed by Brad Pitt), and after being left desperate and penniless, they did some crazy stuff. People could see that they were not just scumbags at heart, and they could sympathize and even relate to them.

A more recent example of this, though not a very good one given the clear directness of its criminal justice theme, would be the Netflix series Orange Is The New Black, which by individually following the lives and backgrounds of the inmates at Litchfield Penitentiary made many feel personally connected to fictional convicts like the late Poussey Washington.

If people could hold the same open-mindedness and sympathy (aka “benefit of the doubt”) for real-life criminals that they hold for The Blues Brothers, we’d be in a much better place in our country in regard to incarceration. Rehabilitation-centered prisons within Nordic cultures have shown to result in reduced recidivism, to the extent of some prisons literally having to close down due to lack of inmates. This all stems from the notion that prisoners are people too, and they can be taught how to be responsible working citizens when they re-enter society. We, on the other hand, consistently hold high rates of incarceration and recidivism, and our culture continues to treat all who have broken the law as though they are too rotten to ever be employed, healed, or rehabilitated. Many American legislators want to clean the streets of all these people, even intentionally making criminals out of good people through the drug war, so that they may continue the wage slavery that is modern prison labor within our largely-privatized system. Due to this societal dehumanization, the term “criminal justice” has become kind of a cruel joke in America.

Now if only Mumia Abu-Jamal was just a character in a Ridley Scott movie, I think he’d be in a better spot right about now.