Beyond “bad guys” and “good guys”

Tuesday, February 27, 2024
a blue background with a collage of things reminiscent of the harmful war on drugs
I grew up believing that there were “good guys” and “bad guys;” the criminals (the bad guys) and the rest of us (the good guys). I believed that our systems of criminalizing people were, for the most part, fair and just. As a child of the 80’s and 90’s, I have vague memories of McGruff the crime dog and the D.A.R.E. program at school assemblies. I grew up with this false binary thinking, blissfully ignorant of the realities of the disparities in the system. As I got older, the line between the ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ began to fade, and my understanding of the world evolved and grew. The voice actor that played McGruff was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2014 and the U.S. is still grappling with the incredible harm done by the war on drugs. People often talk about there being two distinct U.S. criminal legal systems — one for those with access to resources and one for those without. I have had the unusual experience of undergoing the criminal legal system from both positions. 

When I was 15, I ran away from home. I spent the next several years living on the streets and using substances to cope with unaddressed trauma and make the material conditions outside of my control feel bearable. Being unhoused meant daily interactions with police and being criminalized became a normal part of life. Once criminalized, the system and most of mainstream society assigned me the identity of “criminal” and it just became exponentially easier and more likely to be criminalized, often resulting in progressively more serious charges as well. Minor misdemeanors for trespassing (searching for a safe place to sleep), panhandling, loitering (just existing) eventually became charges for unlawful carrying of a weapon, which in my experience, is a survival requirement for a 16 year-old girl living on the streets. Then, I was arrested and charged with a violent felony.

Estranged from my family and with no financial resources of my own, I could not make bail, forcing me to stay in county jail for 6 months. The public defender assigned to my case never showed up for my scheduled hearing dates, extending my case beyond what was necessary. I had no idea what was happening, what my rights were, how to exercise them, what the potential impacts and outcomes were, or how to get any help at all. It felt like I had landed in a country where I did not speak the language or understand the customs. I ultimately plead “no contest” with no idea what that meant or even that I was doing it at the time. I was a minor, but charged and convicted as an adult. After serving some time, I was released onto community supervision and placed in a halfway house. I suffered more abuse there which compounded the unhealed trauma. Soon after being placed in the halfway house I began using drugs and alcohol again to cope, resulting in me violating the conditions of my community supervision. Realizing I was likely to be revoked and sent to finish my time in prison, I fled the state. 

A few years later, I had my first child, began therapy, and slowly reconciled with my family. By the time my son was 2, the stress and worry of possible arrest, extradition, and being separated from my child was overwhelming. So as a housed, employed mother with family support and access to financial resources I returned to the state I had fled and turned myself in. My family hired a prominent private attorney known for his track record on cases like mine, and after 2 days in jail, 1 brief court appearance, and thousands of dollars in fines paid for by my family, I was released with no further obligations and allowed to resume a normal life. 

Juxtaposed against my previous experience in the criminal legal system and the experiences of most other system-impacted folx I had met, the contrast was stark. I began to grapple with the reality of two separate criminal legal systems and in that, realized that it’s important we not only unravel harmful false narratives of justice and fairness in our systems, but also identify the root causes of harm.  As someone who has both experienced violence and harm and also been accountable for violence and harm, I see how problematic it is when we categorize people as either a “victim” or a “perpetrator” of harm. It’s not accurate or helpful to rely on these false binaries for real solutions, and that portrayal is too easily weaponized against people and communities that are experiencing the most harm and oppression. When we talk about community safety, we need to ask ourselves what we really mean. What communities are we keeping safe and what are we keeping them safe from? Whose safety are we prioritizing and at whose expense? Are our solutions an investment in the public good for all, and do they lead us to allowing all communities to thrive? Or are they just the next iteration of historical narratives of harm and maintaining the status quo? 

Criminalization has always been wielded as a tool of oppression by those in power. Crime has always been a weaponized political, legal and social tool of oppression[i]. It is rooted in a long history of racism, classism, ableism and the oppression of all marginalized communities throughout history. The Oxford Dictionary defines “justice” as “the quality of being fair and reasonable.” If we care about justice, true justice, then we need to be willing to reexamine and look critically at how our deeply ingrained false dichotomies came to be, why, and how we are perpetuating them. We will need to make real changes in our own understanding and thinking, in our actions, policies, and systems. I am still learning every day and growing my understanding. I hope you will join me in learning and growing, too.
[i]  Reiter, K. (2018). Mass Incarceration: Keynotes in Criminology and Criminal Justice Series. Oxford University Press.
Murakawa, N. (2008). The origins of the carceral crisis: Racial order as ‘law and order’. In Lowndes, J., Novkov, J., Warren, D.T., postwar American politics. (eds.), Race and American political development (pp. 234-255). Routledge.
Gilmore, R. W. (1999). Globalisation and US prison growth: from military Keynesianism to post-Keynesian militarism. Race & Class, 40(2-3), 171-188.
Criminalization and Racial Disparities - Vera
Muhammad, Khalil Gibran. “The Foundational Lawlessness of the Law Itself: Racial Criminalization & the Punitive Roots of Punishment in America.” Daedalus, vol. 151, no. 1, 2022, pp. 107–20. JSTOR, Accessed 23 Feb. 2024.
Tia Sherèe Gaynor (2018): Social Construction and the Criminalization of
Identity: State-Sanctioned Oppression and an Unethical Administration, Public Integrity, DOI: