The Criminalization of Poverty

We arrest and imprison the poor and people of color at alarming rates in the US. It has gotten to the point where poverty itself has essentially become a crime. I’m not just talking about criminals; I’m also talking about people who spend months or years in jail accused of minor offenses and petty crimes, for which they haven’t yet been found guilty. People who haven’t even gone to trial yet.

And no, this isn’t about being soft on crime. Most of the people in our jails are awaiting trial or serving time for infractions for which more affluent white citizens do not serve time at all. The deck is grossly stacked against the poor and people of color.

And it’s going to get worse. Jeff Sessions has reversed Obama-era policies intended to reduce the prison population, half of which are made up of drug offenders. Sessions has turned instead toward harsher penalties, the use of private prisons, and a stated intent to increase the US prison population, which is already the highest per capita in the world, despite the fact that the US crime rate is dropping.

To quote Sessions (reported in the March 15 edition of USA Today’s Tennessean): “We’ve got some space to put some people,” he said as a crowd of law enforcement officials laughed. “We need to reverse a trend that suggested that criminals won’t be confronted seriously with their crimes.”

Mass-incarceration policy is bad enough; it is costly and unnecessary in many cases of victimless crimes. It haunts the African American community, where teenagers are 4 times more likely to be treated as criminals for what would simply be “misbehaving” if the offender were white. And as the ACLU notes, prosecutorial power is dangerously unchecked and opaque.

But the impact on the poor of our nation is devastating. There are two issues that should concern all fair-minded Americans: the inequitable way in which bail is set, and the trend of municipalities to front-load minor infractions with significant additional costs that the poor simply cannot afford.

It shouldn’t be a crime to be poor!

We have to have fair bail practices for the poor (and this includes a disproportionate number of people of color), because the poor pay 4 times the bail amounts of wealthy whites. This means that our jails are filled with people waiting to go to court. The poor cannot afford onerous bail, so they waste away in jail, awaiting trial dates that may be months in the future. They lose their jobs, lose custody of their children, lose their homes and possessions, and remember, we are talking about people who may not even be guilty. They are just awaiting trial, but they can’t afford bail so they sit in jail.

The second issue is less obvious and perhaps more insidious. Municipalities are strapped for funds and have turned to civil penalties as a way to raise revenue. One key reason for this is directly related to tax cuts (generally for the rich), which leave local governments facing shortfalls. Municipalities then turn around and raise money through higher civil penalties, mainly impacting the poor and people of color.

Poor people may face fines of $10 to $50 for these minor infractions, but the municipalities then stack on hundreds of dollars in court fees and processing fees. There are even fees to appeal traffic tickets if you feel you are innocent. The poor often cannot afford these expenses, and worse, not expecting them, they show up in court and are unprepared for what happens next: imprisonment because they can’t pay their court costs. The result is that if you are poor, or in places where Americans are racially targeted or profiled, infractions like jaywalking, littering, minor traffic offenses, parking tickets, and even spitting on the sidewalk can result in jail time.

This isn’t a problem you can blame on the current administration. Radley Balko, writing in the Washington Post in 2014, noted:

I wrote earlier this year about how the problem gets compounded when local governments become dependent on the revenue from petty infractions, and become tempted to start rigging the game to generate more offenders, “to the point where several cities have been caught shortening yellow lights to hand out more tickets, a practice that makes intersections significantly more dangerous.”

Jail time comes with serious ramifications; in addition to the devastating effects listed above for those jailed while awaiting trial, think about what it means to apply for a job if you have ever served jail time (even if it’s for something trivial). Jail time for those who are already disadvantaged is a serious blow; the number of people who commit suicide in jail (I’m talking about jail here, not prison) has steadily risen according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The crime of being poor should not come with a death penalty!

Further reading:

2 thoughts on “The Criminalization of Poverty”

  1. Netherlands actually has a great program of reinsertion resulting in lower crime. Maybe we should look into that. But wait! Oh no Trump is our president…

  2. This is disgraceful but unfortunately, not surprising. What can be done about it? For starters, maybe set bail on a sliding scale?

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