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The Criminalization Of Being Poor


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Part of a long and tangentially related article:

 

http://www.tomdispatch.com/archive/175428/

 

The viciousness of the official animus toward the indigent can be breathtaking. A few years ago, a group called Food Not Bombs started handing out free vegan food to hungry people in public parks around the nation. A number of cities, led by Las Vegas, passed ordinances forbidding the sharing of food with the indigent in public places, leading to the arrests of several middle-aged white vegans.

 

One anti-sharing law was just overturned in Orlando, but the war on illicit generosity continues. Orlando is appealing the decision, and Middletown, Connecticut, is in the midst of a crackdown. More recently, Gainesville, Florida, began enforcing a rule limiting the number of meals that soup kitchens may serve to 130 people in one day, and Phoenix, Arizona, has been using zoning laws to stop a local church from serving breakfast to homeless people.

 

For the not-yet-homeless, there are two main paths to criminalization, and one is debt. Anyone can fall into debt, and although we pride ourselves on the abolition of debtors’ prison, in at least one state, Texas, people who can’t pay fines for things like expired inspection stickers may be made to “sit out their tickets” in jail.

 

More commonly, the path to prison begins when one of your creditors has a court summons issued for you, which you fail to honor for one reason or another, such as that your address has changed and you never received it. Okay, now you’re in “contempt of the court.”

 

Or suppose you miss a payment and your car insurance lapses, and then you’re stopped for something like a broken headlight (about $130 for the bulb alone). Now, depending on the state, you may have your car impounded and/or face a steep fine -- again, exposing you to a possible court summons. “There’s just no end to it once the cycle starts,” says Robert Solomon of Yale Law School. “It just keeps accelerating.”

 

The second -- and by far the most reliable -- way to be criminalized by poverty is to have the wrong color skin. Indignation runs high when a celebrity professor succumbs to racial profiling, but whole communities are effectively “profiled” for the suspicious combination of being both dark-skinned and poor. Flick a cigarette and you’re “littering”; wear the wrong color T-shirt and you’re displaying gang allegiance. Just strolling around in a dodgy neighborhood can mark you as a potential suspect. And don’t get grumpy about it or you could be “resisting arrest.”

 

In what has become a familiar pattern, the government defunds services that might help the poor while ramping up law enforcement. Shut down public housing, then make it a crime to be homeless. Generate no public-sector jobs, then penalize people for falling into debt. The experience of the poor, and especially poor people of color, comes to resemble that of a rat in a cage scrambling to avoid erratically administered electric shocks. And if you should try to escape this nightmare reality into a brief, drug-induced high, it’s “gotcha” all over again, because that of course is illegal too.

 

One result is our staggering level of incarceration, the highest in the world. Today, exactly the same number of Americans -- 2.3 million -- reside in prison as in public housing. And what public housing remains has become ever more prison-like, with random police sweeps and, in a growing number of cities, proposed drug tests for residents. The safety net, or what remains of it, has been transformed into a dragnet.

 

It is not clear whether economic hard times will finally force us to break the mad cycle of poverty and punishment. With even the official level of poverty increasing -- to over 14% in 2010 -- some states are beginning to ease up on the criminalization of poverty, using alternative sentencing methods, shortening probation, and reducing the number of people locked up for technical violations like missing court appointments. But others, diabolically enough, are tightening the screws: not only increasing the number of “crimes,” but charging prisoners for their room and board, guaranteeing they’ll be released with potentially criminalizing levels of debt.

 

So what is the solution to the poverty of so many of America’s working people? Ten years ago, when Nickel and Dimed first came out, I often responded with the standard liberal wish list -- a higher minimum wage, universal health care, affordable housing, good schools, reliable public transportation, and all the other things we, uniquely among the developed nations, have neglected to do.

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I don't know. If someone doesn't get their car properly inspected and their brakes go out, killing an innocent, then maybe they shouldn't be driving their car. I can see how this would have a larger impact on a poor person than others, but should our response to this be to lower safety standards and wink while people drive around without liability insurance?

 

I don't take issue with all points made, but this one builds a thin case.

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I actually resent it when people flick cigs out their car windows. I'd fine them the $500.00.

 

But then they aren't poor. Just a tangent.

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I actually resent it when people flick cigs out their car windows. I'd fine them the $500.00.

 

But then they aren't poor. Just a tangent.

 

Having lived through a bushfire and knowing many are started by this very action I think $500 is way too low.

Its worse than shooting into a group of buildings depending on the area and the time of year.

 

 

 

 

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I think it's more complex than that. It's true, for example, that there may potentially be safety issues with poorly maintained cars. So let's say we recognize this and take somebody's $500 beater away that he depends upon to get to his minimum wage job. In the U.S., it is very likely that he will not have access to a viable means of getting to work using public transportation, which may be opposed by those rolling up their sleeves to get to work like Florida governor Rick Scott, and he'll lose his job. He has no reserve cash, and can no longer pay for rent or food and becomes another homeless person. The burden on society has not gone away, it has merely shifted. Perhaps if we had provided a viable public transportation option when we took his license we might have been a little better off.

 

There is a negative correlation between income and smoking. The guy in the beater cannot afford his pack of GPC cigarettes, but those are his priorities, and he is much more likely to flick a burning cigarette out his window than soccer mom is. Not to minimize fire risks, which of course exist notwithstanding that the vast majority of flicked cigarettes do not result in forest fires, but when he flicks his butt out the window and gets a four figure fine for it, that might be a month's salary. I'm guessing that most people who smoke, or used to smoke, have flicked burning cigarettes out the car window at some time or another, so a penalty of more than a few hundred dollars would heavily criminalize something that is relatively common. So while tossing smoldering litter on the side of the highway is still a definite problem, there is also a bigger picture, with consequences and side effects to whatever solutions we do or do not try to enact.

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