The criminal justice war on poor people

So, in my criminal justice policy class yesterday, I was talking about systemic injustice based on race and class.  And I thought about something in a new way.  As much systemic racism as there is in our system– and there’s lots— it is all de facto, rather, than de jure.  In no way do our criminal laws single out people based on race or, openly/intentionally punish people more based on race.  But when we charge a poor person a $500 fine and put them in jail for an inability to pay it, we are basically criminalizing poverty.  And we consistently do this in a way that utterly ruins lives.  It’s just so wrong.

This one disturbing story exemplifies how wrong it can all go:

Her tag light was out and she had yet to purchase appropriate stickers for the car. She also had an outstanding seatbelt ticket from another traffic stop in 2015. “I didn’t really have the money to pay that ticket. Then we moved and I honestly just forgot about it,” she said.

Because the ticket went ignored, and Ms. Thomas had failed to appear in court, her license had been suspended. The arresting officer “was going to let me go, after I reasoned with him some,” Ms. Thomas said. “He let me out of the squad car and was just going to tow my car.”

Then another officer arrived, and he persuaded the original officer to go through with the arrest.

“I remember he said, ‘If we let everybody go, there’d be nobody in prison,’” Ms. Thomas said.

She was taken to Atlanta’s Fulton County jail, and she was in jail for three days before a family member found her. Her relatives had been frantic, calling all the local hospitals and police stations. “This is really embarrassing, but I couldn’t remember anybody’s number by heart,” Ms. Thomas said. “I couldn’t call anybody, so I just sat there.”

A judge set Ms. Thomas’s bail at $1,500. Bail is paid at 10 percent. Her family couldn’t afford $150, so Ms. Thomas remained in jail for eight days…

Ms. Thomas’s bail may not have counted as “excessive,” but for her it was still outside the realm of affordability. Expensive bail, in general, is a far more widespread problem for black women, as they are four times as likely to be imprisoned as white women. Black defendants routinely receive higher bail amounts than white defendants with similar charges.

Many things happen while people are held awaiting trial. Families lose income. Children suffer the absence of a parent. The costs of incarceration — whether its fees paid to probation officers or payments made to bail bondsmen — add up, and can be debilitating for families that are already financially vulnerable.

A secondary fear, for many, is the involvement of Child Protective Services. Ms. Thomas felt fortunate that her son, Jorden, was seventeen at the time of her arrest, and her family intervened to care for him while she was away.


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