September 27, 2010

Inequality and Life Chances: Going to Law School or Going to Prison

KS_2010a By Karen Sternheimer

Sociologist Max Weber observed that one’s opportunities, what sociologists call “life chances,” are shaped by our class and status. While we tend to think of success as the sole result of our talent and effort, our social position is in many ways a result of our family’s social status.

Imagine two young men from vastly different backgrounds—both bright, neither exactly sure what direction they want their lives to take. One resides in an impoverished area of Los Angeles in a neighborhood plagued by gangs and violence. The other grows up in Washington, D.C. and attends an exclusive prep school with children of the political elite. Neither is particularly committed to their studies, and both find themselves adrift. Can you guess who ends up in law school and who ends up in prison?

This is not a hypothetical example, but one that attorney Ian Graham details in his memoir, Unbillable Hours: A True Story. The book focuses on Graham’s experience working to free Mario Rocha from prison, who was serving a double-life sentence for a murder he didn’t commit.


Rocha had drifted from being an honors student to skipping school to hang out with his friends, and at fifteen was placed on probation after riding as a passenger in a stolen car. In 1996, when he was sixteen, Rocha attended a party crashed by gang members, who shot and killed an honors student. Rocha wasn’t in a gang, but a party goer identified him as one of the shooters from a photo line-up—where his picture ended up after his arrest the year before. Despite the lack of evidence of a third shooter, Rocha was arrested for murder. (To learn more about the case, watch Mario's Story on DVD).

His mother, who scraped by as a custodian, took out a $17,000 mortgage on her home in order to pay for what the family hoped would be better legal representation than a public defender could offer. But the attorney they hired (who had approached the family soliciting his services) barely did any work on Rocha’s behalf, and he allowed the prosecution to try Rocha along with the two known gang members. Rocha was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Meanwhile, Graham finished college with what he writes were less than stellar grades and without a clear plan. And yet he was able to secure an entry level job as a staffer on Capitol Hill while he figured out what he wanted to do—a job that someone from Rocha’s background would have a hard time getting even with good grades.

While peer pressure led many in Rocha’s neighborhood to join gangs and drop out of school school, Graham’s friends went to graduate school or got high paying jobs on Wall Street. Feeling like he was “falling behind,” he decided to go to law school and try and figure things out there.

After doing well his first year, large law firms courted Graham with fancy dinners and the promise of a six-figure salary. By his own admission, he had little interest in working for a big law firm but was tempted by the money and found himself working long hours doing mind-numbing work. (The work sounded so dull that after reading about it I actually had a nightmare about being locked in a room all night to analyze documents I couldn’t understand. Anyone who is planning on going into law should read his description of life at a big firm.)

In order to do something that might be more interesting, Graham volunteered to work on one of the firm’s pro bono cases. Coincidentally, the firm had recently agreed to take on Rocha’s case and try and win him a new trial, and the book details how Graham and his colleagues set about to help Rocha gain his freedom. (In 2006 Rocha was released from prison and is now attending college in Washington, D.C.)

Although this story has something of a happy ending—Rocha got out of prison and Graham left the big law firm—it serves as a reminder of the different obstacles and opportunities people might face based on social class.

Their struggles to find a sense of purpose and freedom led each on remarkably different paths. Graham worked crazy hours, pulling many all-nighters to try and manage an impossible workload. But he was well compensated, although shackled by “golden handcuffs” of a big salary that made it difficult to leave the firm. But for Rocha the costs were far higher. His shackles were real, as he spent ten years in a maximum-security prison and endured two brutal stabbings by other inmates. While both eventually found direction, Rocha had lost years of valuable young adult experiences learning to survive on his own. Today he is dealing with many of the same challenges people a decade younger struggle with.

“Mario was at least as bright as I was, possibly more so,” Graham writes, “but he had grown up in the LA barrio, without the opportunities, benefits, and second chances of a privileged upbringing. I wondered how I would have fared growing up in his world, and he in mine.”

A good reminder of how social class impacts our life chances.


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I believe that social class has everything to do with a person's future. All though there are fairy tales of people escaping, the sad but true fact is that a person's background will determine where they are likely to go. John Watson, an early pyschologist, claimed that he could turn any new born babies into whatever he wanted, all based on the environment he placed them in. A future drug dealer, doctor, soccer mom..etc etc. I very much support John Watson's and Max Weber's ideas.

Indeed life chances are shaped by so many external factors. Sometimes, it makes me wonder if it is possible to further social engineer the society, so as to maximize everyone's life chances. One example is education for all, regardless of socio-economic status.

Perhaps if everyone is taught the concept of life chances, they will think twice before doing anything silly that will seriously decrease their life chances, such as getting into a gang fight. But again, drawing from lessons from behavioral economics, this may not work.

It may very well be true that social class is an intregal determining factor as to which path an individual will end up socially , however those who have the determination and willingness to break that stereotypical philosophy do not always have the fairy tale ending as the book or movie. We do however have a much more improved quality of life than those we left behind who believe that they cannot reach behind their socio-econimic fates and are to afraid to make the attempt because it would be a far greater failure to fal when your already at the bottom.

It's amazing that so much of our lives can be determined by the place we were raised-and our parents. It's a little worrisome for me that peer pressure could lead these people in such different directions. Everyone who is lucky enough to be norn into a good place should be devoutly thankful.

While it is disheartening that so many people from backgrounds of poverty end up repeating the cycle, the few who do escape and go on to lead successful lives are stronger than the average American born into a good family. For example, if Rocha had worked hard in school and attended the same law school as Graham, I am willing to bet that Rocha would have a better work ethic due to his strength in working to leave home. Perhaps to end the cycle of poverty, those who managed to escape should revisit and inspire the next generation to do the same.

The location where we live does factor into our lives. Even though we may sometimes not realize it the environment where we live has a great deal of impact on our lives and how we choose to live it. I agree with you saying that, the violence and crime taking place in our neighborhoods will reflect in some ways how we live. Our behavior necessarily won't reflect our bad environments if we don't allow it to.

This article was really insightful and sad. It goes to show that social class and where someone grows up has everything to do with someone’s career/future. After reading this article it made me wonder what race Mario Rocha comes from and if that also played a role in him going to prison. The article mentions that he comes from a poor background in Los Angeles plagued by gangs, but in never mentions his race. I learned from this article that a person’s social class has large impact on their future.

This artical hit my heart, because this young mans life was taken away because of a murder he didn't commit and just to know he didn,t do the crime he must of been very upset .
Mario Rocha came from a poor area and he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and they couldn't find the one who did it so the blamed Mario Rocha I consider this labeling and stereotype.

This is a good example of the central city dilemma, which is the inequality between the inner city and affluent neighborhoods or suburbs. Rocha came from a neighborhood where there were limited oppurtunities, and the taxes generated by the poor residents was not enough to pay for basic things like education. Graham had the same work ethic as Rocha, but he encountered a plethora of oppurtunities simply because he came from a more affluent area. This just goes to show that wealthy people have advantages over people from the low-income inner city. Rocha and Graham were very similar, but their different surroundings pushed one into a world of violence and the other into a world of high paying jobs.

The social conditions we are born into do impact the opportunities we get or do not get. But, this is only one factor. We all have to choose which path we are going to go down. There are kids from good families that have every opportunity that end up in prison, ruin their lives with drugs or other means or are dead because of the choices they make. People from better backgrounds may have an easier time of getting out of trouble or avoiding it but everyone has the opportunity to make good choices and put themselves in a position to be successful with what they are given.

This article is well written and very informative. I really like this site because it offers loads of information to its followers.

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