Dispelling Myths About Poverty
What is Wealth-Based Discrimination?
Wealth-based discrimination is when our laws and policies punish people simply because they are poor.
Preventing a mother from visiting her sons in prison because she cannot afford to pay parking tickets is wealth-based discrimination. Forcing someone to leave town because their mobile home is not worth enough is wealth-based discrimination. Keeping someone in jail pre-trial simply because they cannot afford bail is wealth-based discrimination. In all of these examples (and many more), people are penalized just for being poor.
The clearest example of wealth-based discrimination is money bail: Person A can afford to post bond and is free pre-trial; Person B cannot afford bail and must remain in jail. Both have the same presumption of innocence but in reality only Person A benefits from it. That is wealth-based discrimination. Our justice system should not treat people different based solely on their wealth-status, but right now we have two systems of justice: one for the rich and another for everyone else.
Poverty is an Urgent Problem in the U.S.
More people are falling into poverty, and we are imprisoning low-income community members at a faster rate than ever before.
Before the 1970s, economic growth in the U.S. was associated with falling poverty rates but that is no longer the case. Americans are now working longer and harder but becoming poorer and poorer. Economic instability has heightened poverty across the country, with a national poverty rate of 14% and those living just above poverty at 28%. The welfare reform acts of 1996 accelerated this process by ending federal cash aid programs and replacing them with time-limited state grants. In short, every year more and more people fall through this country’s frayed social safety net.
The sheer number of people in the criminal justice system has made the problem acute as a result of the misguided War on Drugs - the United States, which only represents 5% of the world’s population, accounts for 25% of those behind bars. People experiencing poverty are at greater risk of being arrested and incarcerated for minor offenses than wealthier Americans. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, incarcerated people have a median annual income of $19,185 before they are put in jail, which is 41% less than people of similar ages who don’t go to jail. It is evident, that far too often, it is our poorest who sit in jail.
Poverty is Criminalized
Poverty in our justice system is too often treated as a criminal offense.
Take driver’s licenses for instance: A poor driver with a busted taillight will get burdened with a fine they cannot afford to pay. If left unpaid most states will eventually suspend the driver’s licenses.
Unless the person lives in a city with reliable public transportation, they will have to keep driving to stay employed – putting themselves at higher risk of punishment. Driving on a suspended license leads to additional suspension time and fines, a criminal record, and possible jail time. A simple lack of money, can have devastating impacts on one’s livelihood.
But the collateral consequences do not end there. Someone who can’t drive has a hard time staying employed or finding another job. A study in New Jersey showed that 42% of drivers who had suspended licenses lost their jobs and could not readily find another. Eligibility for public housing is restricted or denied if the applicant has a criminal record, including misdemeanors such as driving while suspended. Local Public Housing Authorities can be even more restrictive and evict occupants if a member of their family or another person residing in commits a crime, such as a misdemeanor drug offense.
For someone with low income having a busted taillight leads to criminal consequences, loss of employment, and even homelessness.
Cycles of Poverty are Created by Bad Policies
People experiencing poverty are at greater risk of being fined, arrested and even incarcerated for minor offenses than wealthier individuals.
With few laws or policies meant to protect them, those experiencing poverty are often forced into dangerous situations that create additional barriers for people to access much needed public support and services. Many experiencing poverty continue to be discriminated against without the means to escape poverty, resulting in an endless cycle.
A clear example of such discrimination is home banishment laws. Small towns in the US have enacted ordinances mandating that mobile homes appraise at a particular value, often double the average mobile home worth. By artificially placing affordable housing out of reach, lower-income individuals are discriminated against by city council and their local governments. This exclusionist behavior deprives poor people of access to better schools, libraries, and recreational facilities. This societal banishment can have a harmful effect on an individual’s lifelong development and can lead to a cycle of homelessness, criminalization, unemployment and lack of education.
These laws create more barriers complicating people’s attempts to meet basic necessities in life, impacting their ability to secure housing and employment, preventing them from receiving the public services they desperately need and impeding their ability to escape the cycle of poverty they are trapped in. If the government is not going to help end cycles of poverty, at the very least, it should not create them.
Society can only end cycles of poverty by equipping people with the tools they need to live successful lives. Many people have a difficult time escaping the criminal justice system once they have entered it. Their inability to pay bail or a traffic ticket, traps them, even if they have never been convicted of a crime. Academic research has confirmed that the best ways to reduce crime are by improving employment, promoting stable housing and encouraging social relationships. By creating barriers to family relationships, employment and housing our justice system actually increases recidivism rates. As a result of such counterproductive laws, we are all less safe.
Mass Incarceration is the Result of Discrimination Against the Poor
The U.S. prison population is largely drawn from the most disadvantaged part of the nation's population - mostly men under the age of 40 with women being the fastest growing statistic and disproportionately persons of color.
Our prison surge is mostly due to the war on drugs. Since 1970, drug arrests have skyrocketed rising from 320,000 to close to 1.6 million according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice. Aggressive police practices — such as stop and frisk and broken window policies — disproportionately target minority and low-income neighborhoods.
Whether it is a vindictive federal prosecution of a rural Native American family using medical marijuana or state prosecution of an amount of marijuana that is legal within the city limits — mandatory minimum punishments for victimless crimes are disproportionately directed at people living in poverty. Such individuals are easy targets for overzealous prosecutors: unable to afford legal counsel, people experiencing poverty lack the tools to effectively fight back. When someone is imprisoned for years or decades because of a victimless crime, the entire community suffers from the loss of a parent, sibling, co-worker, or employee.
Policy experts know that there are better answers than simply punishing people. The failed War on Drugs is perhaps the most extreme example of over-criminalization: enforcement costs the United States more than $51 billion each year, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. As of 2012, this country had spent $1 trillion on anti-drug efforts. Time and time again, we see our justice system using punishment as a one-size-fits-all quick fix rather than investing in long-term prevention and treatment.
Privatization Doesn't Save Taxpayers Money
Privatization of our criminal justice system puts profits over people and creates incentives for extortion, corruption, and prolonged imprisonment.
In 2015 about 126,000 prisoners were held in private prisons in 29 states. That’s an 83% increase since 1999, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. By comparison, the total U.S. prison population increased 12% during that span. Large prison populations have led to a business of caging people by profit-seeking private-prison companies. Political lobbying in favor of prison construction in turn demands humans to feed into the system. This sprawling prison system imposes staggering economic, social, political, and discriminatory costs across the nation.
Private probation companies have become one of the leading culprits for violating constitutional rights. The number of people on probation or parole is staggering: in December 2016, 4.5 million adults were under criminal supervision. Courts in a dozen states have signed contracts with private companies to handle the load. Some counties are laying off their public probation officers and allowing private companies to earn profits from the citizenry.
Too often, these private companies do not provide the needed rehabilitation services — such as help locating employment or housing — and instead they threaten probationers with jail to squeeze out exorbitant “probation fees.” Such practices destabilize housing, employment, and family relationships, and result in people going to jail simply because they are too poor to pay a private company.
Our current justice system has been infiltrated by privatization including prisons, probation, GPS tracking devices, and even courts that use private individuals as judges. Criminal justice should not be a profit center. This country’s legal system has for centuries been premised on neutral arbiters deciding guilt, innocence, and administration of justice. We mistrust any arrangement where actors in the system stray from their duty to administer justice impartially in exchange for personal profits.
When private companies profit off of the jailing of others, perverse incentives corrupt our justice system with catastrophic results. As long as they exist, their leaders will support policies that fill every jail bed and line corporate pockets.