How The United States Has Criminalized Poverty And How To Change That Now
Over the past several weeks and months, I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about the intersection of social justice issues and financial issues. They go hand in hand. One always influences the other. And that’s because without access to money and other resources, there aren’t many options. That applies whether you’re talking about housing, education, health, career, and of course, the criminal justice system.
The long and short of it is that you need money to avoid and navigate the criminal justice system. Wealthy people can afford great lawyers, they can post bail immediately, and simply, they can avoid being in contact with the police at all. And that’s because, as I’ve found in my research and conversations lately, poverty is criminalized in our society. You might think that sounds ridiculous, but once you dig into the facts, you’ll see that it’s true. And it’s up to us to make sure that these systems start to change.
Have you ever wondered why “panhandling” is illegal? Or why folks can get in trouble just for loitering? There are lots of laws out there that criminalize behavior that is done by those who are homeless. This approach is outlined in detail in a recent anonymous article entitled, Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop. Not only does this not help our homeless population in any way, but it harms them by putting them into the criminal justice system. Once someone enters the criminal justice system, they become more likely to remain the system or get caught up in it again in the future. Plus, there are fees associated with being in jail and being released, which might compound an already difficult financial situation.
Criminalizing Mental Illness
Over the last few decades, many of the mental institutions in the United States were emptied out and closed down. And that did not happen because everyone in these institutions had been treated and safely sent on their way. No, these institutions have been shut down without a clear solution for how people would be cared for moving forward.
Why is this relevant to the criminal justice system? It’s relevant because these hospitals were shut down, but there was nothing else created to replace them. Plus, there still is not adequate healthcare in the United States, so people without health insurance and money are unable to get the care and treatment that they need. Many of these people end up homeless.
To make matters worse, police are now the ones dispatched if someone is having a mental health crisis. That means that someone might be arrested, rather than provided with medical care. Or, as often happens, that person might be injured or killed by the police when what they needed was a mental health intervention and treatment.
Using a Cash Bail System
In my last piece, I wrote about how the cash bail system in the United States is unjust and targets poor folks and communities of color. If someone is arrested and charged for a crime, whether or not they have had a trial and conviction, if they cannot afford their bail, they will not be able to get out of jail. This keeps people in jail purely because of their financial circumstances, which hurts individuals, their families, and their communities.
Adding Cash Penalties to Traffic Violations
Have you ever gotten a parking ticket that you forgot to pay, so a few weeks later, you got another ticket in the mail, but this time, it was double the amount? For many of us, this is a frustrating inconvenience. For many other people, this can mean financial ruin. If they couldn’t afford to pay their original traffic ticket on time, how could they afford to pay double, or triple, or more? Plus, in some cities, if you have overdue traffic tickets, you can be unable to renew your license or registration. For people who rely on their vehicle to get to and from work, this is a massive burden that can lead to people losing their jobs or worse.
So, what can we do to make things better?
Create and Fund Necessary Services
It’s very clear that important social services in the United States are woefully underfunded. Affordable healthcare is barely a reality, even after the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Access to adequate education is largely dependent upon where you live. Affordable housing is not nearly as accessible as it should be. And there are many other services that are either underfunded or nonexistent. It’s important that we start reconsidering where most of our city budgets go - is that money going to services that will actually help people in their daily lives? If not, how can we start changing that moving forward?
Don’t Send the Police to Situations Where They Won’t Be Helpful
We’ve heard many stories about police being sent to situations where they actually don’t help the situation. Whether it’s someone having a mental health crisis, or a similar issue, when the police show up, things typically escalate instead of deescalating. And a lot of times, people end up getting arrested, rather than being taken to the hospital or given another form of necessary care. This harms the relationship between communities and the police, and it ends up harming the people who needed help in the first place. Instead of expecting the police to handle every single issue, big or small, there need to be other service providers who respond to specific issues.
End the Cash Bail System
As I said in my last piece about the cash bail system, if we want the criminal justice system to be just in any way, we have to end the cash bail system. When people are stay in jail or get out of jail purely because they can or cannot afford to pay bail, the system is inherently unjust. Bail should be based on community safety concerns only. If someone has been arrested for something non-violent, they should not be held on bail. If the court is concerned that the defendant will not show up for trial, they should implement processes and services that ensure that someone will show up, like transportation vouchers, text message reminders, and childcare.
Invest In More Affordable Housing
Housing is one of the most important necessities that people can possibly have. Housing means you have a place to sleep, a place to shelter during bad weather, a place to go to the bathroom, a place to stay safe. But the cost of housing has rapidly increased over recent decades, while wages have largely stagnated. Racist housing discrimination, including zoning laws that prevent certain types of housing, has lead to our communities continuing to be segregated. Investing in more affordable housing opportunities throughout our communities will allow more people to have safe places to live that they can actually afford to pay for. This would solve a lot of problems right away.
We can’t necessarily solve all of the problems related to poverty and homelessness in the United States overnight. But there are clear solutions that would do so much more good for so many people. They would help individuals, communities, and society as a whole. As you start seeing calls to divert funding to services that support people in your community, speak up with support. Call your lawmakers and let them know where you stand.
This piece was originally published on my ForbesWomen column.