Poverty in 2020 was up 11.4% from 2019, the first increase in five years. Concurrently, in early February this year, a man was caught shoplifting 10 raw steaks from a Trader Joe’s in East Village, a truly horrific crime that prompted the man’s arrest and Reverend Al Sharpton’s appearance on MSNBC to discuss “the need for public safety and to address criminal justice concerns.”
Many public figures have jumped to Trader Joe’s defense over the shoplifting story; however, many of these same people were quiet when just three years ago the same grocery store chain was fined $1.6 million for wage theft, including failure to pay even minimum wage or overtime compensation. It seems that one individual’s robbery in order to survive is considered a heinous crime, but a large corporation’s illegal mistreatment of its workers is simply “good business.” The Economic Policy Institute reported in 2014 that an “epidemic of wage theft” has riddled the country for years; EPI defines wage theft as “employers taking money that belongs to their employees and keeping it for themselves.” This type of theft is directly related to those public safety and criminal justice concerns that Sharpton was so vocal about a few weeks ago; I do not think I have to explain the idea that perhaps starving people will resort to stealing in order to eat, or that parents with babies at home might feel their only chance to take care of their children is to steal diapers and baby wipes.
These examples show the fundamental dysfunction of the American criminal “justice” system. We have grown complacent with a system that punishes the neediest among us while allowing their simultaneous exploitation in the name of profit and the economy. A worker who is not paid enough, whether due to wage theft or the fact that the minimum wage in this country is less than one-third of what it needs to be for a two-parent, two-child household, is not feeling the effects of the greatest country in the world or the strongest economy in the Western sphere. They are feeling pain, suffering, and apathy from those who hold the power. Most of America’s criminalization process is systemically broken. With issues from poverty to immigration to abortion, the fundamental problem of all failed policies is that we focus on trimming the branches, and then we are surprised and angry when they grow back when, if we really wanted the problem gone, we should focus on uprooting the bush. We cannot achieve a safer or a more humane society by simply locking away all the undesirables. We must begin to address the root causes of crime in order to eliminate the outcome and in order to protect the people most in need.