Mike Brown was walking in the middle of the street, instead of the sidewalk.
Eric Garner was selling dollar cigarettes on the street without collecting tax.
Walter Scott was driving with a broken taillight.
Freddie Grey was standing on the street corner in the ‘wrong’ side of town.
These minor infractions became the target of police action, reflecting a disturbing trend in law enforcement that favors attacking petty crimes as a means of deterring major ones. In Ferguson, New York, North Charleston and Baltimore, the consequences of this “broken windows” approach to policing were catastrophic, and they have rightly commanded world attention. The police response in these incidents crystalizes the experience of many African-American men in communities across the country.
More broadly, these troubling trends in law enforcement also reflect the growing criminalization of poverty in America.
The recent Department of Justice report on policing practices in Ferguson, Missouri put a much needed spotlight on this problem, highlighting how a predatory system of enforcement of minor misdemeanors and compounding fines can trap low-income people in a never-ending cycle of debt, poverty, and jail.
In Ferguson, this included outrageous fines for minor infractions like failing to show proof of insurance and letting grass and weeds in a yard get too high. In one case, a woman who parked her car illegally in 2007 and couldn’t pay the initial $151 fee has since been arrested twice, spent six days in jail, paid $550 to a city court, and as of 2014 still owed the city $541 in fines, all as a result of the unpaid parking ticket. The Department of Justice found that each year Ferguson set targets for the police and courts to generate more and more money from municipal fines.
And Ferguson isn’t alone. The criminalization of poverty is a growing trend in states and localities across the country.
Being poor in this country has never been easy. Since the advent of poverty programs, stigmatizing poor people — particularly people of color — has become a central theme in conservative politics. These days, however, the actions of local governments are making being poor that much more difficult.
The United States legally ended the practice of debtor’s prisons in 1833, and the Supreme Court ruled in Bearden v. Georgia (1983) that it is unconstitutional to imprison those who can’t afford to pay their debt or restitution in criminal cases, unless the act of not paying debt or restitution is “willful.” But in a groundbreaking new report, the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS ) highlights how poor people are being increasingly targeted with fines and fees for misdemeanors and winding up in illegal debtors’ prisons when they can’t pay—and in some cases, then being charged additional fees for court and jail costs:
Poor people, especially people of color, face a far greater risk of being fined, arrested, and even incarcerated for minor offenses than other Americans. A broken taillight, an unpaid parking ticket, a minor drug offense, sitting on a sidewalk, or sleeping in a park can all result in jail time… leading to the imposition of fines and court costs.
If the defendant cannot pay, he or she may be jailed and, in the ugliest twist of all – later charged for the cost of room and board, then re-jailed for failing to pay that. If the defendant is put on probation, he or she must pay for the probation officer and anything else required for monitoring, like an ankle bracelet.
… the overall effect is to perpetuate poverty and even expand the poverty population, to no possible good effect. Poor and indigent people cannot afford to pay for the means to coerce and incarcerate them, and nothing is gained by repeatedly jailing them. The criminalization of poverty – and increasing impoverishment of people judged to be criminals — amounts to a system of organized sadism.
In the foreword to the report, best-selling author Barbara Ehrenreich observes that while it seems that the “dialogue about poverty remains the same as it was in the early 1960s,” in reality, “many things have changed in the last 50 years, some of them so recently as to have gone largely unnoticed by pundits and policy makers.”
As local governments became more and more strapped for cash, they found a new and relatively simple way to bolster their budgets: They “increased the fees, fines and court costs they levied for minor transgressions, and at the same time, increased the number of possible misdemeanors to include truancy (for which parents can be punished), driving with an expired license (as is the case in Washington, DC), putting one’s feet up on a subway seat (in New York City), and a variety of other minor infractions.”
Continuing The Cycle of Poverty
Ehrenreich explains how this disturbing “new normal” results in an unrelenting cycle of poverty: “Poverty leads easily to criminal charges from unpaid debts, unrenewed licenses and the like. Criminal charges in turn lead to ever-mounting debt and, despite laws prohibiting debtors’ prisons, to incarceration.”
A recent investigation by National Public Radio, the New York University Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Center for State Courts cited a study estimating that between 80-85 percent of inmates now leave prison owing debt for court-imposed costs, restitution, fines and fees. In some jurisdictions defendants are charged for their room and board during lockup, probation and parole supervision, drug and alcohol abuse treatment, DNA samples, and even their constitutional right to a public defender. When poor people can’t pay those fees either, the cycle continues.
The private companies providing probation services in more than half of the states are some of the biggest winners when poor people are targeted. If people on probation can’t afford the fees they are charged, they breach their probation contract; this can result in more jail time, making it even less likely that they’ll be earning the money they need, and people under the supervision of these private probation companies often become liable for charges exceeding the initial cost of their ticket or fine.
Federal law also prohibits people in breach of probation from receiving a range of benefits, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), food stamps, and Supplemental Security Income—once again, exacerbating the cycle of poverty, probation, and prison.
And across the country, state and local policies have established barriers that make it more difficult for people who have served any time in prison, including those there because they were poor, to re-integrate into society. According to a study conducted by the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section, there are more than 38,000 documented statutes nationwide creating collateral consequences for people with criminal convictions including barriers to housing, employment, voting, and many public benefits.
By denying these citizens access to basic services they need to survive, our policies needlessly increase the risk of recidivism and continue to leave people truly trapped—and when we extend the cycle of poverty by criminalizing poor people, there are only a few greedy winners and many, many losers.