Does the Law Morally Bind the Poor?
Or What Good's the Constitution When You Can't Buy a Loaf of Bread?
Consider the horror we feel when we learn of a crime such as that committed by Robert Alton Harris, who commandeered a car, killed the two teenage boys in it, and then finished what was left of their lunch. What we don't consider in our reaction to the depravity of this act is that, whether we morally blame him or not, Robert Alton Harris has led a life almost unimaginably different from our own in crucial respects.
In Does Law Morally Bind the Poor? or What Good's the Constitution When You Can't Buy a Loaf of Bread?, author R. George Wright argues that while the poor live in the same world as the rest of us, their world is crucially different. The law does not recognize this difference, however, and proves to be inconsistent by excusing the trespasses of persons fleeing unexpected storms, but not those of the involuntarily homeless. He persuasively concludes that we can reject crude environmental determinism without holding the most deprived to unreasonable standards.
"This is a book that can help us think through the terrible choices created in a highly stratified society where an increasing number of people cannot legally obtain even the basic necessities of life. Can we, like Thomas Aquinas, accept the idea that stealing bread under such circumstances is no crime or must we live in a society where equal or greater punishment is imposed on the desperate?"
—Gary Orfield, Harvard University