The Criminalization of Poverty

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When most people think of mass incarceration they think of massive prisons–Stateville, Sing Sing, Angola. But mass incarceration has a local face: jails. In our own county Build Programs, Not Jails has fought for three years to halt plans to spend more than $30 million to build new jail cells in East Urbana. We have opposed this largely because jails have become repositories of the poor and in many cases virtual debtors’ prisons. The following passage on jails descries the process of criminalizing poverty. It a slightly modified version of the text from Chapter 7 of my book, Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time.

Changes in Local Laws and Punishments: The Criminalization of Poverty.

Across the country policing of urban spaces has intensified in the last three decades. This constitutes part of the criminalization of the poor, a process researcher Christopher Petrella calls “from welfare to cellfare.”

The criminalization of the poor not only fits in with the aggressive policing of the War on Drugs, but also includes “zero tolerance” or “broken windows” approaches to policing that have become the norm in many cities. The broken windows idea comes from a 1982 article by sociologists James Q. Wilson and George L Kelling. Written at a time of escalating crime rates, the “broken windows approach” suggests that small crimes, such as vandalism leading to broken windows, are the first step to more widespread and more serious criminal activity.

In response, many police departments, led by New York City under Police Chief William Bratton, began a “zero tolerance” policy by systematically arresting people for minor ordinance violations like loitering, graffiti writing or public drunkenness. In addition, many cities passed ordinances making it illegal to engage in some of the survival activities common to many poor people especially the homeless: “aggressive” panhandling, selling goods and services on the street (like windshield washing at stop lights), sleeping or urinating in public. A survey undertaken by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and The National Coalition for the Homeless in 2009 found that of 235 cities surveyed:

  • 33% prohibited “camping” in particular public places in the city and 17% had citywide prohibitions on “camping.”
  • 30% prohibited sitting/lying in certain public places
  • 47% prohibited loitering in particular public areas and 19% prohibited loitering citywide.
  • 47% prohibited begging in particular public places;
  • 49% prohibited aggressive panhandling , 23% had citywide prohibitions on begging.

In some places restrictions extend to outlawing sharing of food in public. For example, Las Vegas passed an anti-food sharing ordinance to halt a program organized by the group “Food Not Bombs” to feed the homeless in public spaces. Further restrictions have targeted people who live in cars. Silicon Valley in California was one of the first places to make this illegal, taking away one of the last living space options for many homeless people.

Apart from these changes in the law, forceful policing has become more common. For instance, in some cities, police carry out sweeps of areas where homeless people are concentrated. These often lead to arrests, personal injury to the homeless and the destruction of their personal property, or confiscation of their medication.


Fines and Poverty Penalties: The Re-birth of Debtors’ Prisons

This array of new legal sanctions against urban survival activities has been accompanied by the increasing use of fines and fees as additional punishment. These financial penalties come in a variety of forms and often end up being the reason for people being re-incarcerated. The American Civil Liberties Union has said that this effectively amounts to a restoration of debtors’ prisons, a form of punishment the US outlawed in the 1800s. Many states impose charges simply for entering the criminal justice system. In 2009 for example, the North Carolina state legislature passed a set of fees to be levied on all defendants. regardless of whether they were eventually found to be guilty. These included a “general court fee” of $95.50-102.50 and a “facilities fee” of $30.00. Louisiana has a $300 judicial expense fund, while Washington state adds $100 for taking a mandatory DNA sample and a $600 Legal Financial Obligation for each felony conviction. Washington authorities also charge 12% annual interest on money owed to the criminal justice system. Arizona levies an 83% surcharge on all fines. Hence, in Arizona a $500 traffic ticket actually costs $915.

In 2010 the Brennan Center carried out a survey of fifteen large population states. They found that fourteen had jurisdictions that used “poverty penalties”- adding extra charges onto unpaid debt. All had jurisdictions that incarcerated people for failure to pay fines and fees. Eight of the fifteen suspended driver’s licenses for non-payment, while seven revoked voting rights until the debt was paid. Several offered defendants an opportunity to “volunteer” to serve time to settle their criminal justice debts.

In Alabama and Georgia, further financial complications have come via the outsourcing of probation to private firms such as Sentinel Offender Services and Judicial Correction Services. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, in some instances, these firms offer no real probation program other than collecting fines on behalf of the local government. However, they top up the fines with monthly fees for their own services and then use the threat of incarceration on people who fail to pay these service charges.

Many local authorities argue that these fines are necessary in order to finance the operations of the criminal justice system. Yet the Brennan Center report questioned the financial viability of this system. They found that most states had not even studied the costs of collecting fines as compared to the revenue generated. Until we halt this criminalization of the poor and provide some form of “welfare” instead of “cellfare,” mass incarceration will persist. This involves not only a change in policy but a change in mindset from demonizing poor people to finding ways to create bonds of solidarity across class and racial divides.


Criminal Justice Debt: A Life Sentence?

For many people going to jail ends up in a series of fines, fees, and penalties which become a long term burden, Sociologist Alexes Harris, an expert on criminal justice debt, argues that this can set up a cycle of debt and incarceration which in some cases can amount to a “life sentence.“ She maintains that “as a result of interest and surcharges that accumulate on these financial penalties, this portion of a person’s sentence becomes permanent legal debt, carried for the remainder of their lives.”

Harris advocates the abolition of all criminal justice fines and fees apart from restitution.

Other people argue that such fines, along with excessive bails violate the eighth amendment of the US constitution. While many people are aware that the eighth amendment bans cruel and unusual punishment, it also outlaws the “excessive bail” and “excessive fines.”


How Criminal Justice Debts Lead to Debtors’ Prisons:

The Brennan Center has cited four ways failure to pay criminal justice debt can land someone in a “debtors’ prison”

  • Their parole or probation can be revoked
  • A civil or criminal court action can order them to jail
  • Their probation or parole can be extended
  • People “choose” jail as an alternative to cash in order to pay off their fines.
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