When Becoming a Drug Dealer is the Only Option
Why do we demonise petty crime while white-collar criminals get off free?
Hamza is a drug dealer. He would have liked to have been a professional footballer, or a rapper, or a car mechanic, but that isn’t really an option where he comes from.
The 19-year-old has lived his entire life in Grigny, one of the grimmest estates of Paris’ banlieues. It’s only 30 kilometres away from the centre of the city, and yet it feels like a different world. As soon as you step out of the run-down local train, which breaks down frequently and smells intermittently of hashish, you find yourself in a jungle of high-rise tower blocks. The outside feels vaguely claustrophobic, a feeling which worsens when you step into the cramped, graffiti-covered hallways. Hamza says the elevators break down a lot, that you see pregnant women carrying their shopping up nine flights of stairs to get home. Elderly people living on the upper floors can’t leave at all until the elevator is repaired, which always takes several weeks. “It’s a mess,” Hamza says as he shows me around. He points to the garbage storage room, where people are “afraid to go because of the rats.”
But the dilapidated housing isn’t the worst thing about living in Grigny. The worst thing is how hard it is to make anything of your life. It is France’s poorest community, the place where the violent riots which shook the suburbs back in 2005 started. They were triggered by the death of two teenagers who tried to hide in an electrical substation to escape the police who were chasing them. Suffice to say it has a very bad reputation. So bad that if you write your address as being in the estate, people won’t want to hire you.
That is what happened to Hamza when he left school at 16. “I have 10 brothers and sisters, so there are a lot of mouths to feed back home. As soon as I had the legal age to leave school, I had to go out and find a way of earning money,” he explains. At first, he wanted to enter an apprenticeship program, where he would continue going to school a couple of days a week, while working part-time in a garage and learning the trade. But to do that, he had to get hired as an apprentice. “I couldn’t find a single person who would hire me.”
So Hamza entered the thriving drug trade operating in the area. “Getting a badly paid job just doesn’t make sense — through illegal activities, you can make as much in a day as you do in a month at minimum wage.” Hamza turned to drug dealing because it was the only way he could make a decent living. He became a drug dealer because it was the rational economic decision in the difficult circumstances he lives in.
I meet Hamza close to the station in Grigny. He is hanging out with some friends, keeping a casual lookout for police so that he can warn his colleagues — the ones with the merchandise — if anyone comes. It’s a risky business: even people trading in small quantities of drugs often get sentences of up to five years in prison, and that can go up to thirty years for people trading larger amounts.
In comparison, Jerome Kerviel, a trader convicted for pulling one of the biggest bank frauds in history back in 2014, only spent five months behind bars. He had single-handedly put in place a scheme of fictitious transactions, resulting in losses valued at €4.9 billion.
Why do white collar criminals get treated with so much more leniency than people involved in petty street crimes?
This is a global phenomenon. In the US, the debate over the low persecution of executive crime was rekindled last month when Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, was sentenced to just 47 months in jail as punishment for a string of fraud charges, which cost the Internal Revenue Service millions of dollars. The sentence was below even what Manafort’s attorney argued he deserved, and far shorter than the suggested range of 19.5 to 24 years put forward in the sentencing guidelines cited by prosecutors.
The sentencing drew reactions of outrage from legal professionals as well as from social media, with many suggesting that it revealed the unfairness of the US justice system towards different types of criminals. Presidential candidate and Democratic Senator for Minnesota, Amy Klobuchar, wrote on twitter:
“Crimes committed in an office building should be treated as seriously as crimes committed on a street corner,”
Meanwhile, Scott Hechinger, a senior attorney who defends people who cannot afford legal representation in Brooklyn, tweeted:
“For context on Manafort’s 47 months in prison, my client yesterday was offered 37–72 months in prison for stealing $100 worth of quarters from a residential laundry room.”
In certain cases, most people’s moral compass points the same way: a person stealing food to survive is more legitimate than a rich person syphoning of millions more. But it isn’t always that simple, because our sense of morality intermingles with a learned sense of class contempt. Poor people suffer stigmatisation and discrimination from the middle and upper classes. The way they are seen is still tinted with a mindset that wants to depict the working classes as an uncivilised animal like underclass while putting upper classes on a pedestal.
Already in 1956, sociologist Charles Wright Mills wrote that the elites didn’t have to win the moral consent of those over whom they hold power, because society is passive, and simply trusts that those at the top are acting on behalf of public interest. This leads to a higher level of immorality in the upper classes being accepted without critique.
Plus, in the mindset of many, their crimes are romanticised. It is crime in nice suits and fancy hotels. “Defendants, particularly in very high-level crimes, often project an image of success. They have wealth, and access and are glamorous,” Georgie Weatherby, professor of sociology and criminology at Gonzaga University, told Psychology Today. Judges, too, can fall victim to these stereotypes.
People also often underestimate the impact of white-collar crime. The FBI estimates that they cost the US economy nearly $1 trillion a year. The annual cost of street crime is $15 billion. Nor is white-collar crime is victimless. Not a single trader went to jail after the 2008 financial crisis which destroyed lives across the globe and was caused by bankers’ malpractice. When companies avoid paying taxes, that means less money for public services, it means less well-funded schools and more expensive health care.
Yet politicians and the media focus more on street crime than elite deviance, and the public feels a lot more personally affected by the former. “The costs to society of white-collar crime are immense, but people don’t feel them directly. How safe they feel in their homes, where they can walk at night, these are the issues people feel. They are tangible,” Ms Weatherby told Psychology Today.
The elites have created a system in which it is harder to pin the blame on individuals whose decisions ostensibly damage the economy. Legally, corporations are “big, fancy responsibility-diffusion mechanisms,” writes Sam Buell, a Duke law professor, in his book Capital Offenses: Business Crime and Punishment in America’s Corporate Age. He shows that, while it is easy to identify systematic wrongdoing, it is difficult to pin blame on an individual in a way that would stand up in court.
Back in Grigny, one of Hamza’s friends joins the group and greets everyone with a fist bump. Laughing, 18-year-old Checkene tells them he just came out of custody. He’s been arrested several times, he says, for his work in the drug trade. Luckily he never got convicted — “if you don’t have large quantities of drugs on your person, you come out OK,” he says. OK, if a little roughed up by heavy-handed policemen. Heavy-handed when it comes to people of colour, and young men from the banlieues, that is. Unfairness reigns at every step of the legal process.