Who’s Looting Whom? Humphrey School's Joe Soss Discusses Predatory Criminal Justice Practices

June 19, 2020
Head shot of Professor Joe Soss
Professor Joe Soss discussed the connections between predatory law enforcement practices and the uprising that emerged after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police. Photo: Humphrey School

Since the 1990s, governments and corporations in the United States have created a host of new ways to generate revenues by extracting resources, disproportionately from poor black, indigenous, and other communities of color. Such practices include fine-centered policing, court fees, commercial bail, prison charges, civil asset forfeiture, and more. 

In an online forum Thursday, Humphrey School Professor Joe Soss, an expert on social inequalities, discussed the connections between predatory law enforcement practices and the political uprising that emerged in the wake of George Floyd's killing at the hands of Minneapolis police. 

Soss is writing a book that explores the financialization of criminal justice in the United States with his research partner, Professor Joshua Page in the University of Minnesota’s sociology department. 

The forum kicks off the School’s Summer Seminar Series, which features Humphrey School faculty experts discussing a variety of timely topics every Thursday at noon through the summer. 

Here are excerpts from the conversation, which was moderated by Humphrey School PhD candidate AshLee Smith.

On the use of the term ‘looting':

If you are someone from a community that has been heavily targeted for policing and experienced these injustices, you know that there's a kind of bitter irony in this label of looting because over the past several decades—since the 1990s—police themselves are at the front lines of institutions that engage in a very active and ongoing process of looting the communities that they police and punish, as the field opened up to private for-profit corporate actors in the criminal justice field.

Organizations were brought in that were focused on raising revenue from criminal justice. As governments rolled back taxes on the wealthy and on corporations, they became desperate for revenues and began to siphon them from the bottom up. So police are out in the community issuing fines and citations for all sorts of behaviors, even for just moving around in public in poor communities of color, particularly black communities.

And when people get arrested and are taken to court, they enter a whole new world where they're forced to pay fees for various court operations. They take on legal and financial obligations and then they may find themselves in jail where they have to pay for phone calls and for electronic monitoring. They get ushered into this expensive world of commercial bail, where more money gets taken from their families and friends. And then of course people are put in prison or on probation or parole, and again there are ‘pay to stay’ fees; basic necessities have to be purchased from commissaries; charges to make video calls and phone calls; you name it, money gets extracted. All that is before we even get to the issue of how people's bodies are used for free or cheap labor in prisons.

On predatory practices that target poor communities:

Most people think about the criminal justice system in terms of public safety, or crime and punishment. And our point is that it has become a set of institutions that strips resources out of black, brown, and indigenous communities that are quite poor disproportionately, and delivers them as revenues to government and profits to corporations, and is a major part of our system of inequality in society. 

We need to connect the criminal justice system to our country’s history. There have been many predatory institutions in our history such as slavery and the stealing of Native lands. We can look at colonialism and its various ways of taking. We can look at convict leasing in the era after the Civil War, and on and on. 

We also need to connect what's happening in criminal justice to the broader landscape. There are all sorts of predatory business models that focus on the exact same communities as predatory policing does. So we get the payday lenders that charge serious interest rates, we get  the ‘too good to be true’ credit card scams, subprime mortgages and subprime car loans where the interest rates go up and up, we get furniture rental stores. All of them operate in the same way. They impose debts on people who have very few resources, and then they trap those people in ongoing payment plans, in which they are forced to constantly transfer the money they make to the state or to the businesses, far in excess of what they originally owed. There's a shared predatory model across all of these things, and the criminal justice system is a part of that.

The connection between predation and police violence:

One of the things that came out of the Ferguson report, in the wake of the police killing of Michael Brown [in 2014], was that the conversion of courts, the police, and other institutions into revenue-generating operations was deeply corrupting to the prospect of public safety and the values of justice. 

In fact, what you find is that local municipalities around the country have become deeply dependent on this source of revenue and find it quite hard to escape that.

In many ways the relationship between the citizen and the state becomes reconfigured. People are no longer considered full citizens, but as debtors who can never 'repay their debt to society.'

When Michael Brown was killed by the police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, he was originally stopped for walking in the street in a way that had been made into a fineable offense. Michael Brown lived in a city that had what the Department of Justice called a predatory system of government, that was systematically using policing and courts to generate revenues. 

Philando Castile was killed by a police officer in Falcon Heights here in the Twin Cities [in 2016]. The investigation revealed that Castile had $7,000 worth of criminal justice debt, all coming from minor violations concerning tail lights and headlights and seatbelts. Half of those violations were for driving with a suspended license. His license was suspended because of the fines that he owed and couldn't pay off. And so he was confronted with having to drive to work to pay off those debts, but the only way he could drive was to do so with a suspended license. 

One city we researched for our book has 27 different rules that regulate walking on the street. You can be fined for walking in the wrong way as you cross the street. And what that does is it raises the number of interactions between police and people in the community. Particularly in a society that's marked by a great deal of racism, that increases the chances that things can go wrong. 

On efforts to ‘defund’ the police:

Sometimes people are put off by the language of defunding or abolishing or dismantling the police. Defunding the police is fundamentally about reallocating funding. It's about getting away from the idea that the only response to crime is policing and punishment.

Police funding eats up a huge percentage of local budgets; in some places it's 40 to 50 percent of the total. Our police today is a sprawling institution with a sprawling set of practices that saturate poor communities of color, and that is what needs to be defunded. 

In fact, anti-crime initiatives are frequently best pursued through social investments such as labor market reforms that make work pay, that make good work available; that invest in education; invest in social services, and so on. Those are anti-crime initiatives, those are public safety initiatives, and we need to understand them as such. 

We have to be very careful about how we handle all of this and recognize that dismantling and defunding is about starting a process of rebuilding, redeveloping, and redesigning. It's in many ways a call to civic imagination, to come up with other ways that we can approach public safety.