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Criminalization of Poverty: Unproductive and Self-Aggravating

NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: This article contains detailed accounts of domestic violence. Reader discretion is advised.

It was her third time calling the police on her abusive boyfriend when officers warned Lakisha Briggs to stop reaching out to the local police department for help. Norristown, Pennsylvania’s nuisance law stated that tenants that call 911 multiple times within four months could be evicted and their landlord's rental license suspended. The idea was to save money and resources for the underfunded police department, but after her boyfriend attacked her to the point of needing an emergency airlift to the hospital, she was evicted by the city. Nuisance ordinances exist on a long list of laws in the United State’s criminal justice system that criminalize vulnerable people experiencing poverty, punishing them for circumstances out of their control.

Criminalizing those in poverty is evident in the way states address homelessness. State laws punish the homeless community for sleeping in tents, blocking sidewalks, and panhandling. Jail or prison time makes it harder for those already struggling to find work, pushing them further into poverty. About 48,000 people entering homeless shelters are formerly incarcerated and are ten times more likely to be homeless. A 2019 report by The National Homelessness Law Center found a 69 percent increase in anti-camping ordinances across the country. Sit-Lie ordinances, criminalizing lying on the sidewalk or in other places, have increased by 30 percent, and the criminalization of panhandling has increased by 40 percent. Criminalizing someone's ability to ask for help after being neglected by society for their poverty is not the answer. Denver’s 76 largest cities passed 351 ordinances that target and criminalize homeless people. Other city ordinances ban food distribution to people experiencing homelessness. Police arrested seven people in Florida for distributing food without a permit, journalist Bidish Sarma reports.

Prioritizing legal aid and ensuring that Americans have access to legal advice is an important step in stopping criminalizing the poor.

It is difficult for impoverished people to navigate the criminal justice system after being charged effectively. Many people can’t pay for private attorneys, and public defenders are extremely overworked leading to the encouragement of plea deals. Only two percent of criminal defendants go to trial, 98 percent choosing plea bargains instead, and the turnover rate can get as high as 23 percent among circuit public defenders. Additionally, the cash bail system favors those with money, forcing people to stay in jail until their verdict because they can’t afford freedom. A person has two options: stay in jail until their case is resolved because they can’t pay, or enter a contract with the cash bail company where an agent promises to pay the bail if the detained doesn’t show up in court. According to a study by UCLA law, the system forces those who can’t pay to stay in jail or go into debt with $13.5 million in bail money unpaid in Los Angeles between 2012 and 2016, leaving 223,366 people in LAPD custody. About 450,000 people are currently incarcerated in the U.S. because they can’t afford bail. Furthermore, pay-to-stay fees in more than 40 states require inmates to pay for room and board while they are incarcerated, disproportionately affecting those in poverty and classified as minorities.

The justice system needs to prioritize legal aid, discard ordinances that punish the homeless, and replace the cash bail system with broad reform that uses other methods to ensure systemic justice for the poor.

The justice system needs to prioritize legal aid, discard ordinances that punish the homeless, and replace the cash bail system with broad criminal justice reform that uses other methods to ensure justice. First, prioritizing legal aid and ensuring that Americans have access to legal advice is an important step in stopping criminalizing the poor. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 80% of defendants charged with violent crimes couldn’t afford attorneys, and The Center for American Progress notes that in the D.C. Superior Court, 90 to 95 percent of landlords are represented by lawyers in rent and housing disputes, whereas only five to ten percent of tenants have representation. The center notes that most civil cases that “involve high stakes and basic human needs” don’t have a right to representation. Legal aid gives representation and advice to those who can’t afford it, making justice more accessible. In New York State, every dollar spent on legal aid results in $10 dollars in benefits for recipients and their communities. In addition to prioritizing legal aid and looking for ways to make it more accessible, states need to phase out and adjust bail systems. Pretrial detention can leave people locked up for weeks, even months before their trial, sometimes resulting in job loss. Jurisdictions are starting to use presumption of release, making prosecutors prove that there is a need for detention and limiting pretrial detention to serious offenses. Other alternatives to bail include using ankle monitors and ordering adherence to curfew before requiring bail. D.C. started eliminating cash bail in the 1960s, and 94 percent of defendants are released pretrial, and 91 percent of those released appear for their trial.

Without reforms in the pre-existing cash-bail system, an increase in common access to legal resources, and the end of ordinances that punish people for struggling financially, the system will continue to push people further into poverty.

Second, laws that criminalize homelessness waste resources and do not address the real causes of homelessness. Criminalization not only taxes those already struggling but costs the public between $30,000 and $50,000 per person every year, money that could be going towards permanent housing and other resources for people experiencing homelessness. Additionally, states need to include training on how to interact with people experiencing homelessness to ensure fair and considerate interactions between police officers and the homeless community, in addition to eliminating local ordinances that punish the homeless community. A training program would help to decrease profiling, harassment and help police officers understand how to respond to mental health emergencies; not all situations should be met with violence or the common firearm response to direct threats.

The criminalization of poverty is even more relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic. Without emergency relief, the rate of homelessness already has and will continue skyrocket along with plenty of eviction court dates. The current justice system is not designed to ensure a fair trial and equal access to justice when it comes to cost. Without reforms in the cash-bail system, access to justice, and the end of ordinances that punish people for struggling financially, the system will continue to push people further into poverty.

Lana Green is an undergraduate junior at New York University studying Journalism and Politics.

Image courtesy Manuel Alvarez, Creative Commons

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