USF author weighs in on criminal justice

Michael Lynch, a professor in USF’s Department of Criminology since 1997, is the author of a recently published book on the U.S. penal system titled Big Prisons, Big Dreams: Crime and the Failure of America’s Penal System.

Lynch, who teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in criminology, performs research on environment and corporate crime and regulation, radical criminology, and racial bias and criminal justice. He has a book in progress titled Racial Divide: Race, Ethnicity and Criminal Justice, as well as a forthcoming book titled Environmental Crime, Law and Justice: An Introduction. Lynch has written or co-written more than 50 publications in the past 20 years.

Q: What factors do you believe contribute to racial inequality in incarceration?

Lynch: Racism. The issue is, why do we have these racial differences? It depends on who you ask, but from my perspective, why are there more African Americans in prison than whites, when drug use is higher among whites? It has to be racism. They make the rules structured to hide bias. For example, powder cocaine vs. crack cocaine. Why is one more

punished than the other? The population who uses it.

O: How do you believe incarcerating the “worst offenders” will contribute to the reduction of crime rates?

ML: Crime is not something that happens because you don’t punish people, which is an American conception. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate compared to any other country. For every 100,000 people we have about 700 people in prison, compared to Japan, which for every 100,000 people in Japan, only 50 are in prison. And the U.S. has the higher crime rate. So it’s not the level of

punishment that causes crime to go down, it’s what motivates people to commit crimes. In 1973, which we marked as the imprisonment binge, we had 220,000 inmates in prison. Today, we have 1.6 million people in prison, but the crime rate is about the same as the crime rate in 1973. So we have these very serious things, yet we still have the highest crime rates. The assumption is that we can punish our way out of these problems, but the reality is, we can’t.

O: Which cultural values do you believe contribute to high crime rates?

ML: In the U.S. we are obsessed with material possessions, so most of the crime in our society is property crime. If you look at corporate crime, people commit corporate crimes to get more money. Even though they have a ton of money, they want more money. We can look at people in our society who we worship for their contributions like Bill Gates, who runs a company that violates the law all the time, but that doesn’t seem to bother us because he’s accumulating a lot of money, which is an important American value.

More people die from exposure to toxic hazards, unsafe corporate products, unnecessary surgery, traffic accidents in cars that perhaps were made in an unsafe way than homicide, but we pay more attention to homicide.

O: Which cultural values do you believe are the answer to lowering crime and incarceration rates?

ML: One of the issues discussed in the book is why is it that we are so willing to increase the prison system and use a massive amount of punishment? (The answer is) the cultural values of consumption. You can distinguish yourself by the ways in which you consume, and they become visible examples of how much wealth you have. Countries do the same thing. The U.S. does this through a huge prison system. Other countries can’t afford to run that type of prison system, but we say, well, we can. But the problem is that you are consuming people in wasteful ways through the prison system and the death penalty.

Christina Payne can be reached at (813)974-6299 or