Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
It’s your last chance to make a tax-deductible donation to CounterPunch in 2017. Help us gear up to fight the status-quo in 2018! Every dollar counts!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Pushing Back Against the Criminalization of Poverty

by

Poor people across the country are going to jail because they are poor. Following the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a Ferguson, Missouri police officer, the Department of Justice conducted an extensive investigation into the city’s law enforcement patterns and practices. The Department concluded that the city’s “law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.” The emphasis on revenue generation was harming the entire community and driving a wedge between the police and the African-American community. But this story is not limited to Ferguson.

For wealthier Americans, a traffic ticket is a minor inconvenience, but for poor people it is often much more life changing. What begins as a traffic ticket can quickly cascade into a suspended driver’s license and time in jail. And the poor are not just going to jail because of traffic tickets. As Peter Edelman’s new book, Not a Crime to Be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America (The New Press 2017), shows, far too many poor people cycle in and out of the criminal justice system largely as a function of their poverty. Men with no job prospects are jailed for failure to pay child support by judges who do not look into their ability to pay (incredibly, their child support arrears continue to grow while in jail under the theory that such time represents a period of “voluntary unemployment”). Criminal defendants who cannot afford to pay bail or to pay the dizzying array of fees associated with probation face the difficult choice of either suffering through a long wait in jail for a trial or entering a guilty plea in order to get out of jail for time served. Public school safety officers in poor districts, especially when dealing with African-American kids or kids with disabilities, routinely treat disruptions or absence from school not by dealing with such matters with the school system but by referring problems to the criminal justice system.

As Edelman highlights, the problems are not just on the front end; having a criminal record makes it nearly impossible for a person to escape a life of poverty. Having a criminal record not only makes finding employment hard but public
benefits such as TANF, SNAP (food stamps), and public housing are often unavailable to ex-offenders. Not a Crime to Be Poor’s laundry list of ways in which the country criminalizes poverty includes some examples, such as the targeting of the homeless through anti-camping rules, with a long history going back to the English Poor Laws. But Edelman does a great job connecting the criminalization of poverty with conservative tax reform. Cities without the resources to fund their police departments or their courts resorted to everything from fines for having unmowed grass and for burning yard waste without a permit to supplemental fees imposed even on indigent defendants for judicial expenses and for public defender services. Budget shortfalls also incentivized cities to pass crime-free and chronic nuisance ordinances that shift enforcement responsibilities from city police departments to private landlords, hurting victims of domestic violence who face eviction should they call 911.

Criminalization of poverty affects some groups more than others and is heavily tied to both race and place. Not a Crime to Be Poor is a sobering read even though Edelman tries to show that progress is possible. The book overflows with examples, drawn from across the country, of lawyers and organizations fighting hard to protect the poor from rules and practices that criminalize poverty. The success stories Edelman presents are truly inspiring, though the protagonists can seem almost superhuman. Lessening hold that criminal penalties have over the poor requires deep commitment on behalf of charities, lawyers, and politicians to all aspects of poverty. Providers seeking to help poor kids escape the school-to-prison pipeline find that they also have to reach the parents. Social activists focusing on homelessness find that to make a difference they must also launch job campaigns and manage judicial diversion programs.

The challenge when it comes to criminalization of poverty is that the overall politics of the country is largely hostile or indifferent to the poor and their struggles. From Ferguson to Charlottesville, racial inequality is an issue that is enjoying a moment of popular attention, thanks in part to protests ranging from the Black Lives Matter movement to the choice of some professional athletes to kneel during the national anthem. And as Edelman notes, we are also at a moment in which there is bipartisan support for easing some of the excesses of the Rockefeller drug laws. Hopefully Not a Crime to Be Poor will help put other issues from Edelman’s laundry list—such as money bail and punitive welfare regulations—on the table. But only in the conclusion does Not a Crime to Be Poor acknowledge that despite the glimmers of hope chronicled throughout, this might not be the time to directly attack poverty or racism.

For decades those who care about poverty have had to take a largely defensive stance, protecting New Deal and New Society programs from conservative assault but making little forward progress. The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) hinted that the country had turned a corner, joining other developed countries with a commitment to secure basic protections for all members of the society. But Trump’s election and the damage that he continues to inflict on the country as a whole and on the most vulnerable in particular suggests that such optimism was premature. The response to the Trump administration over the remaining three years (hopefully not seven) will expose the nature of the nation’s soul and improving how we treat the poor ought to be part of the overall response. As Edelman’s friend and mentor, Robert F. Kennedy once said, “as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil.” But the fight against Trump demands everyone’s full participation. It seems naïve to think that there will be much progress during the short-term in tackling the criminalization of poverty, but hopefully Not a Crime to Be Poor will help lay the groundwork for a time when sanity returns to domestic policy.

More articles by:

Ezra Rosser is a professor of law at American University’s Washington College of Law.

Weekend Edition
December 15, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
What’s Not Happening With Mr. Jones
Timothy M. Gill
The Height of Racial Resentment: White Cops
Andrew Levine
Democrats Have Much to Learn and the Odious Have Much to Teach Them
Luciana Bohne
Operation Jerusalem Capital: Second Balfour Declaration or Arab-Israeli NATO?
Anthony DiMaggio
#Me Too: Women are Speaking Out, Are We Listening?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Out Walked Monk
Ann Robertson - Bill Leumer
The Demoralizing Impact of Trump, But Hope Has Arrived
Samantha Paez – Sandra de los Santos
The Most Dangerous Place for Mexican Women is in the Streets
Martin Billheimer
Assassins of the Image: the CIA as Cultural Gatekeeper
Jérôme Duval
From Slave Trade to Debt: Occupation Disguised as “Discovery”
Vijay Prashad
The October Revolution
Steve Martinot
Twisted Thinking: Police Militarization in Berkeley
Robert Fantina
Juvenile Delinquency in U.S. Government
Dave Lindorff
Stupidity and Blindness Have Destroyed Whatever Democracy the US Ever Had
Pete Dolack
You are Working Harder and Getting Paid Less
Joseph Natoli
The Axioms of the Other
Susan Babbitt
Why Don Quixote?
Ralph Nader
What Does Trump Mean by “Make America Great Again”?
Ramzy Baroud
Towards a New Palestinian Beginning
Binoy Kampmark
Escaping Reality: Roy Moore and the Rage of Decency
Mark Luskus
Corporate Interests Are Warping the Internet
Ron Jacobs
Sinking in the Swamp
Brian Cloughley
Prepare! Peruse!! Prevail!!!
Jill Richardson
We Agree Assault is Bad, Now Let’s Agree on How to Punish It
Jeremy Corbyn
The Greatest Threats to Our Common Humanity
Walter Clemens – Stephen Advocate
The Amoral Code of America’s Dirty Old Men
Jessicah Pierre
Trump’s Cruel Policy on Haitian Refugees
George Wuerthner
Water Rights or Water Privileges?
Nick Pemberton
What I Learned in Ghana 
Missy Comley Beattie
It’s Capitalism
Tom H. Hastings
Stop Trump movement
Thomas Knapp
The Real Internet Censorship Threat
Robert Koehler
Peace on the Far Side of Nuclear Weapons
Kary Love
Christmas Letter to Jesus
Tom Clifford
China: From the Treasure Fleet to One Belt, One Road
Charles R. Larson
Trump’s Blueprint for State Capture
M. Shadee Malaklou
Jay-Z’s 4:44 Moves Black Radical Thought Through and Beyond the Classroom
Michael Dickinson
What About Our Debts, Pope Francis?
Phil Rockstroh
What Was Verifiably Great About America: Fragments of a Memoir Set to a Musical Soundtrack
Edward Curtin
A Man Turns
December 14, 2017
John W. Whitehead
Surveillance That Never Sleeps
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Roy Moore’s Loss: a Victory for the Young Girls of America
Eric Toussaint
Debt is a Determining Factor in History
Kenneth Surin
Selective Impressions of the New Zealand-Aotearoa Conjuncture
Liaquat Ali Khan
Appropriation of Jerusalem
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail