The Criminal Justice war on poor people

Our criminal justice system’s war on poor people is just so completely out of control.  It has to stop.  And yet, I imagine the vast majority of Americans have not the slightest clue how bad this is.  That too, needs to change.  The problem is there’s no great video moment of a poor person literally financially harassed into prison time.  Peter Coy in Bloomberg:

When you’re convicted of a crime in America, it’s not just prison time you may face—there are fines, fees, and other cash penalties, too. And when you get out, they’ll be waiting. Plus interest.

The plight of “Kathie” symbolizes everything that’s wrong with this system, one that heaps a debt burden onto ex-convicts who don’t have the means to pay. Kathie (a pseudonym) was a 49-year-old ex-convict at the time University of Washington sociologist Alexes Harris interviewed her in 2009. She was sharing a three-bedroom home with three of her four children, her estranged husband, and his father.

Kathie left prison owing $11,000, but the sum had grown to $20,000 because of collection surcharges, private collection fees, and a 12 percent interest rate. She had a low-paying job that didn’t leave her a prayer of paying off the whole sum. “It seems like one of those challenges that are insurmountable,” she told Harris. “It’s like a paraplegic trying to climb Mount Everest.”

Harris writes about Kathie and other hard-luck cases in Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as Punishment for the Poor, a book set to be published next month by the Russell Sage Foundation. Legal debt, Harris writes, “represents the difference between being housed or unstably housed, taking daily AIDS medication or going untreated, accessing or failing to access a public shower if homeless, and being free to move forward someday into a healthier relationship or remaining in an abusive one.”

“The story of my research—the story that must be told—is that our 21st century criminal justice system stains people’s lives forever,” she writes. “The permanent stain results not just from a criminal conviction and the related societal stigma but also from the financial debt, constant surveillance, and related punishment incurred by monetary sanctions.”
So wrong.  So much change is needed.  Maybe after we get the police brutality problem licked?

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to The Criminal Justice war on poor people

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    Time for Michael Moore to take a look and make a film.

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