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Monday, September 08, 2008

Ten Reasons for Criminal Justice Scholars to Watch "The Wire"

David Simon's spectacular, devastating, unbelievable, gritty epic masterpiece is over, after five seasons. I don't really watch TV - no cable, no reception for regular TV, so if I watch anything, it's DVDs - but I've told all my criminal procedure students to see the entire thing if they get the chance. And if you haven't seen it yet, and you care about the criminal justice system, so should you. Spoilers follow, so click the bottom at your own peril.

(1) Sophisticated etiologies of crime. Much of the existing literature on etiology of crime makes the dichotomy between rationality and free agency (the model mostly reflected in our modern penal codes, following the 17th century works of Cesare Beccaria) and predetermination, whether related to the offenders themselves (as suggested by positivists, and by clinically-oriented scholars like Karl Menninger) or to external variables, like poverty, race, and urban factors. The Wire does a superb job at presenting a multilayered picture; we are shown how kingpins rationalize the drug trade using a variety of business models, and, at the same time, how these models cannot be entirely disconnected from the urban environment that surrounds them.

(2) No easy answers. Each season of The Wire focuses on an aspect of urban decay, and seen as whole, the five seasons offer incredible insights into the connections between crime, employment, education, politics and the media. By highlighting the complexity of city politics, the brutality of the drug trade and of law enforcement, the discomfort of residents in high-crime areas, the plight of the public education system and its connections to the drug trade, and the fall of unions, the show teaches us something about cookie-cutter solutions to big-scale problems, namely, that there are non. There are no easy, simplistic Michael Mooresque connections to be made.

(3) Good and Bad Guys? Not what you expected.  Every character on The Wire is drawn with an artist's brushstroke. Everyone strategizes, hurts, is hurt, and treads along his or her life as best they can. You'll find grace, humility, friendship, alongside with instrumentalism, exploitation, and downright cruelty. You'll find wisdom and lack thereof. You just won't find them where you might expect to find them.

(4) Equal screen time devoted to the street and to the law. Yes, The Wire shows us everyone, from the lowest,poorest drug fiend pulling capers to survive another day to the State Governor. And the parallels, which are never drawn too heavyhandedly, are clever and thoughtful. Despite the ideological bend behind showing us the street, and despite the cutting social critique, crime is never sensationalized, glorified, or romanticized.

(5) See the police like you've never seen it before, unless you have been a police officer or otherwise worked closely with the police. If you teach criminal procedure, your students will learn why the Supreme Court is concerned that police may make up informants; how, and why, apprehension statistics have become a proxy for performance; the inner workings, budget constraints, and priorities of real (not manicured and plasticized as in other shows) CSI units; the moments of pride and shame; and the over-engulfing organizational culture, from the crude hierarchies and data obsession of COMPSTAT meetings to what Jerry Skolnick, and other police scholars, call The Blue Code of Silence. The 4th Amendment will never look the same.

(6) See the real role of criminal trials in the criminal process: a very small one. As opposed to Law and Order, and others of that ilk, The Wire does not focus on a criminal jury trial as the be-all, end-all of the criminal process. True to what we know about how the system really works, the amount of court time on the show is negligible. When we are taken to court on The Wire, we see what you and I might expect to see when going to see a real lower criminal court, and what Malcolm Feeley, Jim Eisenstein and Herbert Jacob, Peter Nardulli, and Douglas Maynard, saw in their classic scholarship in the 1970s and 1980s: plea bargains, which rarely reflect the rich tapestry of crime and law enforcement we have seen throughout the cat-and-mouse race of wiretap investigations. And those of your students who have yet to experience externships with the prosecution and/or the defense will be exposed to the difference between the revealed and the hidden in law enforcement machinations.

(7) Honesty and sophistication in discussing race. Set in Baltimore, described by some of the characters as a "brown town", The Wire does not shy away from race and race-based critiques of law enforcement. However, it always goes beyond race and examines its impact in the context of other gaps, inequalities, and cultures.

(8) Hamsterdam. The Wire offers the most amazing bottom-up attempt at drug legalization you're likely to see. In Season Three, Major Bunny Colvin, an inch from comfortable retirement, finally gets sick of doing "more of the same" to fight the losing war on drugs. He carefully designates an area with vacant buildings and cleverly convinces the mid-level drug dealers to move their business there. The show does not shy away from the positive and negative consequences of the experiment. It reflects the kind of openness for model solutions that you might find in Rob MacCoun and Peter Reuter's masterful Drug War Heresies.

(9) Omar and Kima. The Wire showcasts two fantastic characters who are probably the most rounded up, colorful, non-stereotypical, moving GLBT characters on TV. Omar, a stick-up artist, steals stash and money from drug dealers with the assistance of a dynamic and creative crew. His particular version of a moral code makes him particularly interesting to follow. Kima, who starts off as a narcotics detective and then moves to homicide, shows integrity and professionalism at every turn, and the show is to be commended for its careful attention to her family life (and that of other characters). None of these is a "gay sidekick" to the straight characters; their gayness is an important part of their identity, but it doesn't take center stage at the expense of their characteristics as professionals and human beings. Television is saturated with GLBT characters (here's an extensive list by David Wyatt), but really, nothing like this.

(10) Bubbles, who is probably the most human and complex drug fiend on TV today. Those interested in more on the lives of urban drug addicts might also enjoy Simon's nonfiction journalistic account of this subculture in his heartbreaking book The Corner, also made into a miniseries. Bubbles, an endearing, likeable character, desperately holds to the last shreds of integrity and dignity he has; Simon does not allow us to avert our eyes from him even when he sinks to the lowest possible bottom. And, against all odds, perhaps against the better judgment of some of us, we continue rooting for him, and hoping for better days.

This is truly television at its best. It's television that has informed me and changed me. I really, really recommend it.

Posted by Hadar Aviram on September 8, 2008 at 10:59 PM in Criminal Law | Permalink


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True! Sometimes so in a controversial way, such as in the case of Felicia Pearson: http://www.hbo.com/thewire/cast/actors/felicia_pearson.shtml

Posted by: Hadar Aviram | Sep 9, 2008 6:40:29 PM

I completely agree, but I would say that these reasons are also why everyone in this country should watch the show. Frankly, I think it's the best thing that has ever been done on television, in large part because it shows the complexity of just about everything. The only thing predictable about it is that if you begin to root for someone or wish for a particular outcome, that person is going to fall in some way or that outcome is going to become impossible. And it's not just what it portrays that makes the show great (on race, gender, sexual orientation, crime, poverty, education, the media, organized labor, organized crime, drugs, etc.), but it's also the production itself. This show provided more opportunities for excellent acting and production work to more people of color than any other show has.

Posted by: Marcia McCormick | Sep 9, 2008 4:53:15 PM

It's a great series

Posted by: Anonymous Coward | Sep 9, 2008 3:31:39 PM

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