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Guilty of Being Poor: Across the Nation, Courts Shake Down the Destitute

| April 2, 2015

A quarter of the nation's cities have criminalized homelessness. (Tony Fischer)

A quarter of the nation’s cities have criminalized homelessness. (Tony Fischer)

By Karen Dolan

Here’s something you might not know about Ferguson, Missouri: In this city of 21,000 people, 16,000 have outstanding arrest warrants. In fact, in 2013 alone, authorities issued 9,000 warrants for over 32,000 offenses.


That’s one-and-a-half offenses for every resident of Ferguson in just one year.

Most of the warrants are for minor offenses such as traffic or parking violations. And they’re part of a structural pattern of abuse, according to a recent Department of Justiceinvestigation.

The damning report found that the city prioritized aggressive revenue collection over public safety. It documented unconstitutional policing, violations of due process, and racial bias against the majority black population.

One woman’s story illustrates what’s happening to more and more people as municipal revenues become the focus of police departments all over the country.

It began with a parking ticket back in 2007, which saddled a low-income black woman with a $151 fine and extra fees. In economic distress and frequently homeless, she was unable to pay. So she was hit with new fines and fees — and eventually an arrest warrant that landed her in jail.

other-wordsBy 2010, she’d paid the court $550 for the single parking violation, but more penalties had accrued. She attempted to make payments of $25 and $50, but the court rejected those partial installments.

Even after being jailed and paying hundreds of dollars above the original fine, she still owes the court $541 — all because she lacked the money to pay the initial fees.

This woman’s story is repeating itself in town after town.

A 2014 NPR investigation found people who wound up in jail after coming up short on fines for a range of minor offenses — such as catching a fish out of season in Ionia, Michigan, shoplifting a $2 can of beer in Augusta, Georgia, or hanging out in an abandoned building in Grand Rapids.

It’s even worse for the homeless. A majority of cities now prohibit sitting or lying down in public, and nearly a quarter make it a crime to ask for food or money.

I’ve co-authored a report at the Institute for Policy Studies called “The Poor Get Prison,” which examines the growing phenomenon of local communities “criminalizing poverty.” That means targeting, arresting, and downright bilking people for misdemeanor offenses, debt, and lack of resources.

We find that as state and local budgets were squeezed following the 2008 recession, local authorities all over the country levied more fines and fees on those people least able to pay — and aggressively pursued them.

Even after their debt is paid, these can people face discrimination in employment, housing, and social services because of the jail time they racked up when they were unable to pay.

Fines aren’t the only way the courts are shaking down poor people. The report details another increasingly lucrative revenue raiser for both local and federal coffers: civil asset forfeiture. This is the odious practice of seizing cash and property from people not charged with any crime and who can’t afford legal defense.

Not even kids are safe. From pre-school on, poor and black children are often consideredcriminals.

Police presence in schools has been increasing since the 1990s. Combined with the rise of “Zero Tolerance” policies, children in low-income schools are prosecuted as criminals for everything from brawling on the basketball court to doodling on a desk. In Austin, Texas, a 12-year-old ended up in court for putting on perfume.

When a community issues arrest warrants for more offenses than it has residents, something’s deeply wrong. A democratic society that purports “freedom and justice for all” can’t coexist with one that profiles and criminalizes poor people and communities of color.

Karen Dolan is a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-author of the report “The Poor Get Prison: The Alarming Spread of the Criminalization of Poverty.”

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11 Responses for “Guilty of Being Poor: Across the Nation, Courts Shake Down the Destitute”

  1. Nikia says:

    This just breaks my heart. Imagine if we all just paid it forward without need for reward. Redefine our version of justice. Just today someone asked me for a few dollars at the gas station. I don’t know their situation nor does it matter. They asked, I gave then I came home to an email that a generous parent had paid for my son’s school trip balance – they paid for the whole class. I thought to myself my blessing was blessed before I even knew it. Charity never came in the form of a large presence. It is right there in each individual to make a small difference which equates to the bigger picture. People, please stop waiting on our governing bodies to do it for us. They are failing.

  2. confidential says:

    Doesn’t surprise me in Missouri and I am glad that DOJ finally should be cracking down on their bigoted justice! And I say it doesn’t surprise me because 1980’s a good white family man friend of ours when I asked how come they never went to visit his elderly parents in Missouri as they instead will come and visit him, he replied because the racism against black people in MO made him sick of his stomach and that he witnessed as a little kid the injustice done to black residents by police and the court system there and that was sickening and that is why as soon as a young man he could, he moved to California to never come back to MO neither to visit his parents. This is why, even not being black, I would never visited or care to visit MO much less to cross their famous Arch to the west, just very satisfied to bypass it!

  3. THE VOICE OF REASON says:

    Funny, the author sees something wrong with the system when a community issues more arrest warrants than it has residents; I see a community populated with repeat offenders.

    And I grew up in Ferguson, but 45 years ago, when it wasn’t that way.

    • tightlines says:

      The Voice, “repeat offenders” for what? Parking illegally? Sleeping outside? Having a broken tail light?

      There’s a telling quote in the linked DOJ Ferguson report (page 2), pulled from a message Ferguson’s finance director wrote to its police chief in 2010: “Unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year. . . . Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it’s not an insignificant issue.”

      These “repeat offenders,” as you call them, aren’t getting busted for serious crimes that harm people. They’re being shaken down on bs charges by a city government that views them as walking ATMs.

      Here’s an example from page 3 of the DOJ report:

      “… In the summer of 2012, a 32-year-old African-American man sat in his car cooling off after playing basketball in a Ferguson public park. An officer pulled up behind the man’s car, blocking him in, and demanded the man’s Social Security number and identification. Without any cause, the officer accused the man of being a pedophile, referring to the presence of children in the park, and ordered the man out of his car for a pat-down, although the officer had no reason to believe the man was armed. The officer also asked to search the man’s car. The man objected, citing his constitutional rights. In response, the officer arrested the man, reportedly at gunpoint, charging him with eight violations of Ferguson’s municipal code. One charge, Making a False Declaration, was for initially providing the short form of his first name (e.g., “Mike” instead of “Michael”), and an address which, although legitimate, was different from the one on his driver’s license. Another charge was for not wearing a seat belt, even though he was seated in a parked car. The officer also charged the man both with having an expired operator’s license, and with having no operator’s license in his possession. The man told us that, because of these charges, he lost his job as a contractor with the federal government that he had held for years.”

  4. Lancer says:

    We are a giving, forgiving country. However, since 1964 we have allowed the government to handle these matters…and it has not worked.

    We’ve initiated programs, 100+, to combat the problem of poverty. We have spent money and fully funded these programs, as well, to the tune of $22+ Trillion. We still have the same poverty rate as they had in 1967…14%.

    Any attempt to restructure, reinvigorate or innovate is met with hostile disapproval, scapegoating and chants of “hate” from a specific political group. I wonder whom this 14% consistently vote for, in regards to, political party? I also wonder if this political party keeps maintaining the status quo for a vote. After over 50 years of failure…it is a fair question.

    Poverty will only be successfully battled from the individual neighborhoods, cities, counties and states. If DC is incapable of running a “war” then, they are also incapable of combating poverty, as well.

    • What's Happening says:

      We haven’t “allowed the government to handle these matters”. We’ve allowed that the government can help where there’s no other resource in a person’s life. Contrary to popular belief, you actually have to ask for help in this country before you get it. And then you have to qualify.

      I’d like to see links to your statistics, too.

  5. Sherry Epley says:

    This is NOT a story of the failure of the “Federal” government. Before anyone starts, President Obama and the Washington Liberals did not cause what is just now being uncovered in Missouri and many other places.

    The investigation needed to be done at the federal level precisely because of the terrible failure of “individual neighborhoods, cities, counties and states”. They are the perpetrators of these massive injustices. . . NOT the Federal government.

    A terrible example is our state of Florida and our current governor and legislature that continues their policy of “slash and burn” through funding for social programs that protect children like the DCF, while filling our prisons with the mentally ill/pot smokers, looting our funds for the environment, and moving tax monies from public to private schools.

    Florida may not be quite as bad as Missouri, but maybe it’s only because the spotlight and magnifying glass hasn’t been turned on our local government yet. I would guess, we would be placed just a shade better than maybe Texas.

    • Outsider says:

      I think the point is that spending trillions on this war on poverty has done nothing to eradicate poverty. I would argue it perpetuates it.

      • What's Happening says:

        And what statistics or investigative information do you base that on, Outsider? Keep in mind that the idea wasn’t to try to “eradicate” poverty; the idea was to ensure those who needed help could get it if they wanted it. Not everyone that qualifies applies for it, either.

        Sounds to me like your answer would be to stop helping–so what of the people who need it to eat or otherwise survive. Some of you seriously need to turn off the hate radio and propaganda tv and start using what God gave you. Use that brain to look deep inside you. Find your empathy. The lack of it being perpetuated in our society is appalling and unacceptable, not to mention an American embarrassment.

  6. confidential says:

    Kudos to Sherry Epley’s post above. I couldn’t agree more!
    As a matter of fact my past mentioned friend above still resides up North as he said for the same reason will never move below the Maxon-Dixon line. Well I did and here I am in Florida and I still love it, but without hesitation I file complaint when things get out of line and also I take a stand for what is right and fair, because if we do nothing, nothing will ever improve.

  7. Sherry E says:

    Thanks “confidential says” ! While I am a Florida native, I’ve lived in the North and also in California for over 25 years. Returning to my home state has been very disappointing to me. . . to see the inhumanity played out in the culture and state government here. Yes, I agree with you. . . we must speak out, get out the vote for better legislators, and remind our local citizens to love and care one another, warts and all. This intolerance, discrimination, bigotry and racism must stop!

    We should not expect the Federal government to even try to fix these failures of society. It begins with each one of us in the way we treat each and EVERY person while living our day to day lives. It begins with the expectations we place on our teachers and preachers to lead current and future generations to embrace ALL humans as brothers and sisters. It begins with caring for our community and environment enough to do the “right thing” for the common good and the society in which we live. . . and requiring that our leaders at EVERY level do the same, even when citizens in other states and countries do not.

    Simply stated, we should be rising to the glory of our better angels. . . instead of allowing anyone to gin up the fear that creates the loathing of others.

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