By Victor Rios | | 237 pages
Published in June of 2011

SUMMARY: Former gang member Victor Rios grew up in the ghetto of Oakland, California so he knows the realities of Black and Latino males growing up in a low-income neighborhood, but this is not his story. Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys is based on Rios’ Ph.D. thesis at Berkeley that he penned after spending three years following 40 Black and Latino males in Oakland.

“What this study demonstrates is that the poor, at least in this community, have not been abandoned by the state,” Rios says. “Instead, the state has become deeply embedded in their everyday lives, through the auspices of punitive social control.”

Rios’ thesis boils down to that Black and Latino males in Oakland are being put into “an endless loop of hyper-criminalization and punishment, because of the way they look and sometimes dress, where they are “harassed, profiled, watched, and disciplined at young ages before they (commit) any crimes.”

It is a system that strips the boys of their dignity while sowing distrust and animosity between the police and the community as the boys are profiled, harassed, and overpoliced from the moment they leave their homes.

“The boys in Oakland were not seen as souls that needed to be disciplined but as irreparable risks and threats that needed to be controlled and ultimately contained,” Rios says. “The discipline imposed on the boys in Oakland…stripped them of their dignity and humanity by systematically marking them and denying them the ability to function in school, in the labor market, and as law-abiding citizens.”

Once the boys are in the system it is almost impossible to get out as there are very limited if any, resources provided by the police, schools, and social programs. This puts the boys in a double bind – if they follow friends and family into crime they will continue to get tangled in the system, but if they do anything involved with the police then their peers see them as a “snitch” and are physically and verbally abused.

“In other words, when the boys sought out dignity, they were often at risk of losing their freedom; when they worked for freedom, they were making an attempt to stay out of jail or prison but often felt that they had lost their dignity in the process.” 

Rios’ final chapter calls for the end to mass incarceration (it denies people their humanity), a change to policies and programs so they point to reintegration and restoration (can lead to personal and social transformation; restoring dignity leads to crime suppression), an elimination of zero-tolerance policies (second chances are needed), a limitation on school-based policing (police aren’t trained to teach or nurture) and a redistribution of resources from criminal justice institutions into community institutions (a key point of the defund the police movement).

“The more rehabilitative, reintegrative, and positive their interactions with authority figures (are), the more the boys believed in themselves and understood themselves to have a better future,” Rios concludes.

The call for restorative justice, second chances, and dignity and respect for everyone should ring clear and true for Christians and serve as a guide to what Christians can advocate for locally and nationally.

KEY QUOTE: “The ambition in this book is to show the failures of criminalization, the failures of using harsh, stigmatizing, and humiliating forms of punishment to ‘correct’ and ‘manage’ marginalized youths, as well as to highlight the consequences that these methods have on young people’s trajectories. Ultimately, I believe that by understanding the lives of boys who are criminalized and pipelined through the criminal justice system, we can begin to develop empathic solutions which support these young men in their development and to eliminate the culture of criminalization that has become an overbearing part of their everyday lives.”    

BONUS: Don’t have time to read the book? Listen to Rios talk about Punished on the Office Hours Podcast or watch him discuss his book on Frontline.

DID YOU KNOW?: Sunday to Saturday has a Good Reads page where we post all of the books we have read – even the ones that didn’t make the cut.

DIG DEEPER: We have curated four guided learning paths to help you think distinctly Christian about policing.

Victor Rios on Policing Black and Latino Boys

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