Like everyone else on the internet, I found myself staring unpleasantly into the angry eyes of Donald J. Trump. I wasn’t happy about it — but not for the reasons you might think.
A mug shot, by its very nature, is a tool used to oppress. Mug shots — or booking photos — are an identifying image taken by law enforcement after a person has been arrested. One hundred percent of the people photographed are legally innocent in a nation that proclaims all accused people remain innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
In a system defined by its racial disparity and propensity to rapidly and mercilessly punish the poor, these images have become another tool to entrench social and historical disadvantage. For the rest of their life — or the rest of the internet’s life — an accused person’s face will pop up in the signature, humiliating box of booking-room lighting.
The mug shot is a brand that does not fade, a screaming headline that a person is not worthy of resiliency, mercy or forgiveness. The mug shot is a direct rebuttal to the presumption of innocence and a direct barrier to second chances. And you’ll notice that we usually only see mug shots for people the system already targets: Black men in particular, people of color generally, low-income people, LGBTQ people, people dealing with mental health conditions, homelessness or substance dependence. Part of carrying privilege in America is knowing that if you are arrested, the local news will show your high school football photo instead of your late-night, bleary mug shot.
Unlike most people’s experience of the criminal legal system — which is usually ruinous — Donald Trump has consistently found a way to profit off of every unfolding stage in his prosecution. From a PAC that pays for his lawyers to a Twitter post hawking merch, the former president has turned criminal accusations into a revenue stream. For $34, you can buy a President Trump mug shot T-shirt.
Nothing is more privileged than turning a mug shot into swag. Trump has managed to use the very worst thing about mug shots — their endless internet proliferation and iconic quality — and turn a thing that destroys most people into a tool for personal gain.
In a moment when the left is salivating over a mug shot and the right is spending money on mug shot koozies, I — a longtime public defender and person working to transform our legal infrastructure — feel compelled to remind you that there is no such thing as a good mug shot.
“By politicizing the mug shot and reveling in its existence, we perpetuate and permit a bad practice that entrenches bias and disadvantage.”
For everyone who is not a celebrity or former president, studies have shown that criminal legal involvement suffocates economic opportunity. Thanks to lower earnings associated with criminal legal involvement, the total amount of money lost annually by all people with a criminal conviction or who have spent time in prison is at least $370 billion, or 148 times the most recent estimate of Trump’s worth.
At least 1 in 3 Americans have a mug shot because about one-third of us have been arrested by the age of 23. There are over 45,000 collateral consequences to becoming involved in the criminal legal system, limiting a person’s ability to obtain or retain employment or gain the professional licenses required to advance one’s career. When someone is arrested — and remember, you can be arrested, held, and remain incarcerated pretrial even if you are never found guilty — they are immediately at risk of economic loss.
The majority of employers — by some measure, over 80% — rely on criminal background checks in the hiring process, impacting employment opportunities for the 70 million Americans who have a criminal record. And that mug shot? It is a quick search away on the internet.
Thankfully, there is growing recognition that a mug shot can cause lifelong damage. News outlets have begun to recognize their role in this and have begun to be more thoughtful about how, when and if they should even publish mug shots. States have started to think about policies to protect vulnerable people, like kids, from the harm of a mug shot and limit their release.
But remember this: By politicizing the mug shot and reveling in its existence, we perpetuate and permit a bad practice that entrenches bias and disadvantage. In the case of this particular mug shot, the media parade will go on with or without the mug shot, but perhaps this mug shot is made especially loathsome by its profitability.
For every dollar Trump earns from his mug shot, there is another person, with far less privilege, power and economic mobility, losing both their dollars and their dignity. While Trump sells shirts, the average person is losing theirs.