The unjust murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, drew serious national attention to racially biased policing in this country. The Justice Department’s Ferguson Report also revealed draconian criminal justice procedures whereby low-income individuals were being targeted with unnecessary fines and fees most were unable to afford and then subsequently arrested and jailed for failure to pay.
In other words, the Ferguson Report revealed a system of laws that effectively makes poverty a crime.
Last Thursday the Center for American Progress and the American Constitution Society hosted a conversation with lawyer and law professor Peter Edelman, author of the book Not a Crime to Be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America. During this event, Edelman explained that Ferguson was just the tip of the iceberg and discussed many ways that being poor is a crime in the US.
When discussing the privatization aspect of criminalizing the poor, Edelman highlighted the role probation plays, stating that Georgia has the most for-profit probation companies of any state in the country and rakes in millions due to this profiteering scheme.
This issue also intersects with the underlying issues of mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline. In schools all over the country, educators criminalize children who violate school rules by unnecessarily involving law enforcement and court systems. In Mississippi, a Jackson County Youth Court judge sends out an annual reminder to the school districts to not burden the court system with kids they deem “disruptive.” In Texas and Wyoming, they send the kids to adult court for skipping or missing school.
In forty-three states, people can be charged for exercising their constitutional right to a public defender. Forty-four states charge individuals for the costs of their own probation or parole, which can include fees for electronic bracelets, drug testing, alcohol monitoring, driving classes, home supervision, and more. As well, due to the existence of Charles Dickens-era vagrancy laws in many cities, homeless people can be thrown in jail for merely sleeping on the sidewalk. “There are about 2,000 of these ordinances one way or another around the country and at least some form of it in all of our cities,” says Edelman.
The consequences of these exploitative measures include job loss, exclusion from a host of public benefits, and potential lost custody of children. Immigrants (even those with green cards) are subject to deportation. Once incarcerated, impoverished inmates without access to paid work are often charged room and board. Many debtors are harassed by bill collectors and legal action for the rest of their lives.
Edelman argues that this is a retributive system that targets people already caught in a cycle of poverty and maintains that cycle. He bluntly states that these laws only exist to obtain money for the government and that the anti-tax movement in the US has exacerbated these processes by influencing funding cuts at the federal level.
Local and state courts attempt to supplement their funding by levying fines for trespassing, failure to appear in court, and other minor transgressions, then jailing those who can’t pay. They also charge fees to people convicted of crimes, including fees for public defenders, prosecutors, court administration, jail operation, and probation supervision.
And when these fines and fees are left unpaid, local and state courts attempt to offset their budget deficits with aggressive debt collection tactics. This translates into arresting and jailing people who fall behind on their payments, without affording any hearings to determine an individual’s ability to pay or offering repayment alternatives such as community service.
When asked, “How can this possibly be constitutional if we’re putting people in prison or jails because they can’t pay?” Edelman quickly responded, “It’s not.” These morally bankrupt judicial practices aren’t just unfair, they’re illegal. Imprisoning someone because they can’t afford court-imposed excessive fines or fees violates the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees due process and equal protection under the law.
The unconstitutionality of this systematic criminalization of the poor—which disproportionately victimizes communities of color—has led to the American Civil Liberties Union challenging and urging governments and courts to pursue more rational and equitable approaches to criminal justice debt. The ACLU notes the dehumanizing nature of this vicious cycle:
Debtors’ prisons impose devastating human costs. They lead to coercive debt collection, forcing poor people to forgo the basic necessities of life in order to avoid arrest and jailing. Debtors’ prisons waste taxpayer money and resources by jailing people who may never be able to pay their debts. This imposes direct costs on the government and further destabilizes the lives of poor people struggling to pay their debts and leave the criminal justice system behind. And most troubling, debtors’ prisons create a racially-skewed, two-tiered system of justice in which the poor receive harsher, longer punishments for committing the same crimes as the rich, simply because they are poor.
It’s impossible to confront and fully rectify this exploitative interplay of classism, racism, and capitalism until there’s widespread understanding (followed by radical change based on said understanding) of two uncomfortable yet obvious truths:
Truth #1: The American experiment erected and maintained on stolen land is inherently exclusionary and has always adhered to a social order that honors profits over people.
Truth #2: The systems sustaining social order are entrenched in, and thrive on, dehumanizing standards incompatible with a facet of the propagandized national ethos that reveres the idea of “liberty and justice for all.”
In 1833, the United States formally abolished the incarceration of people who failed to pay off debts. Yet, the criminalization of poor people and a modern-day peonage system continues to metastasize around the country. Edelman encourages those aware of the policies that criminalize poverty to help raise awareness and become a part of the movement to end these unconstitutional injustices.
“We must get rid of the laws and practices that unjustly incarcerate and otherwise damage the lives of millions who can’t fight back. We must fight mass incarceration and criminalization of poverty in every place where they exist, and fight poverty, too.”