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Criminalizing poverty is big business

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN | 5/18/2015, 7:51 a.m.
The recent Department of Justice report on police and court practices in Ferguson, Missouri, put a much needed spotlight on ...

(NNPA) – The recent Department of Justice report on police and court practices in Ferguson, Missouri, put a much needed spotlight on how a predatory system of enforcement of minor misdemeanors and compounding fines can trap low-income people in a never-ending cycle of debt, poverty and jail.

This included outrageous fines for minor infractions such as failing to show proof of insurance and letting grass and weeds in a yard get too high. In one case, a woman who parked her car illegally in 2007 and couldn’t pay the initial $151 fee has since been arrested twice, spent six days in jail, paid $550 to a city court, and as of 2014 still owed the city $541 in fines, all as a result of the unpaid parking ticket. The Department of Justice found each year Ferguson set targets for the police and courts to generate more and more money from municipal fines. And Ferguson isn’t alone.

The criminalization of poverty is a growing trend in states and localities across the country.

The investigation of Ferguson’s practices came after the killing of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer, and last month the practice of criminalizing poverty made headlines again after Walter Scott was killed in North Charleston, South Carolina. Scott was shot in the back by police Officer Michael Slager on April 4 as he ran away after being pulled over for a broken taillight. Scott had already served time in jail for falling behind on child support, and on the day he was stopped, there was a warrant out for his arrest for falling behind again. His family believes his fear of going back to jail caused him to run.

His brother told The New York Times that Scott already felt trapped: “Every job he has had, he has gotten fired from because he went to jail because he was locked up for child support,” said Rodney Scott, whose brother was most recently working as a forklift operator. “He got to the point where he felt like it defeated the purpose.”

A 2009 review of county jails in South Carolina found that 1 in 8 inmates was behind bars for failure to pay child support. Rodney Scott remembered his brother trying to explain to a judge that he simply did not make enough money to pay the amount ordered by the court: “And the judge said something like, ‘That’s your problem. You figure it out.’”

The United States legally ended the practice of debtor’s prisons in 1833, and the Supreme Court ruled in Bearden v. Georgia (1983) that it is unconstitutional to imprison those who can’t afford to pay their debt or restitution in criminal cases, unless the act of not paying debt or restitution is “willful.”

But poor people are being increasingly targeted with fines and fees for misdemeanors and winding up in illegal debtors’ prisons when they can’t pay – and in some cases, then being charged additional fees for court and jail costs.

A recent investigation by National Public Radio, the New York University Brennan Center for Justice and the National Center for State Courts cited a study estimating between 80-85 percent of inmates now leave prison owing debts for court-imposed costs, restitution, fines and fees.