Why do we break the law?

By Shantelle L. Argyle

A while ago, I remember thinking to myself that something in the legal industry didn’t quite feel right to me. I think I might have been about 16 at the time. I had been pulled over yet again by the police, in my 1980 Ford Crown Victoria (known colloquially as a “boat”) with the rusted out hood and malfunctioning blinkers.  The officer told me that my mom and dad were responsible for fixing the blinkers and getting insurance up to date, so they were not going to give me a ticket. He told me to tell them to get it fixed – or else. The thought in my head was that I had just paid for my own textbook deposits for 10th grade with my part time minimum-wage job, and free school lunches had been denied to our family again. We made “too much money” to qualify for fee waivers in the “free” public school system.

Electrical work on a barely-running vehicle was not an option. Hot school lunches were barely an option.

Why was this police officer, who was in fact kind to me, focusing on a technical issue? And why had he pulled me over instead of the new BMW driving 10 over in a school zone? I could only assume it was because we were poor.

Now generalizations like this are a disservice in a lot of ways to those who really face discrimination. I know only what my limited experience in a fairly affluent town can teach me. My family was treated differently, because we lived a whole 1 mile west of the rich part of a small town. Another generalization, but to a 16 year old that mile might as well have been 50.

I paid attention when I noticed that we got pulled over again, then again, then yet again. How did they speak to my father? How did they speak to me? Polite but dismissive. Excuses were simply excuses for not complying with the law. Our inability to pay and absolute need to drive a broken down car were real – yet treated as fabrications for convenience or to get away with something. The impact of a suspended license or an impounded vehicle for a family like ours would have been complete devastation.

For those charged with criminal offenses, who often face these types of collateral consequences, that devastation is real and impenetrable. I started to wonder if there might be a better way to help those defendants, so that a DUI/DWI is both a first and last offense. How could the risk of recidivism be reduced, and what things cause people to violate again later?

Only after law school did I learn about Evidence Based Practice and criminogenic needs. Sure enough, poverty, inability to work, anti-social associations, and other lifestyle factors do impact someone’s likelihood to re-offend. It’s not an excuse, but it is information that could lead to actually preventing crime.

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