Op-Ed, 612 words

Guilty of Being Poor

When a community issues arrest warrants for more offenses than it has residents, something's deeply wrong.

Karen Dolan

Here’s something you might not know about Ferguson, Missouri: In this city of 21,000 people, 16,000 have outstanding arrest warrants. In fact, in 2013 alone, authorities issued 9,000 warrants for over 32,000 offenses.

That’s one-and-a-half offenses for every resident of Ferguson in just one year.

Most of the warrants are for minor offenses such as traffic or parking violations. And they’re part of a structural pattern of abuse, according to a recent Department of Justice investigation.

The damning report found that the city prioritized aggressive revenue collection over public safety. It documented unconstitutional policing, violations of due process, and racial bias against the majority black population.

One woman’s story illustrates what’s happening to more and more people as municipal revenues become the focus of police departments all over the country.

It began with a parking ticket back in 2007, which saddled a low-income black woman with a $151 fine and extra fees. In economic distress and frequently homeless, she was unable to pay. So she was hit with new fines and fees — and eventually an arrest warrant that landed her in jail.

By 2010, she’d paid the court $550 for the single parking violation, but more penalties had accrued. She attempted to make payments of $25 and $50, but the court rejected those partial installments.

Poor Black Man

Tony Fischer Photography/Flickr

Even after being jailed and paying hundreds of dollars above the original fine, she still owes the court $541 — all because she lacked the money to pay the initial fees.

This woman’s story is repeating itself in town after town.

A 2014 NPR investigation found people who wound up in jail after coming up short on fines for a range of minor offenses — such as catching a fish out of season in Ionia, Michigan, shoplifting a $2 can of beer in Augusta, Georgia, or hanging out in an abandoned building in Grand Rapids.

It’s even worse for the homeless. A majority of cities now prohibit sitting or lying down in public, and nearly a quarter make it a crime to ask for food or money.

I’ve co-authored a report at the Institute for Policy Studies called “The Poor Get Prison,” which examines the growing phenomenon of local communities “criminalizing poverty.” That means targeting, arresting, and downright bilking people for misdemeanor offenses, debt, and lack of resources.

We find that as state and local budgets were squeezed following the 2008 recession, local authorities all over the country levied more fines and fees on those people least able to pay — and aggressively pursued them.

Even after their debt is paid, these can people face discrimination in employment, housing, and social services because of the jail time they racked up when they were unable to pay.

Fines aren’t the only way the courts are shaking down poor people. The report details another increasingly lucrative revenue raiser for both local and federal coffers: civil asset forfeiture. This is the odious practice of seizing cash and property from people not charged with any crime and who can’t afford legal defense.

Not even kids are safe. From pre-school on, poor and black children are often considered criminals.

Police presence in schools has been increasing since the 1990s. Combined with the rise of “Zero Tolerance” policies, children in low-income schools are prosecuted as criminals for everything from brawling on the basketball court to doodling on a desk. In Austin, Texas, a 12-year-old ended up in court for putting on perfume.

When a community issues arrest warrants for more offenses than it has residents, something’s deeply wrong. A democratic society that purports “freedom and justice for all” can’t coexist with one that profiles and criminalizes poor people and communities of color.

Karen Dolan is a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-author of the report “The Poor Get Prison: The Alarming Spread of the Criminalization of Poverty.” IPS-dc.org.
Distributed by OtherWords.org

  • nono

    “That’s one-and-a-half offenses for every resident of Ferguson in just one year.”

    The DOJ report never claimed that the 16000 warrants were ALL for people living in Ferguson. FPD stops lots of people on the highway. Most of those warrants are for people that do not live in Ferguson.

    The state of MO allows police to pickup and transport people wanted on warrants that are found anywhere in the state. This makes it worth while to issue warrants to people that do not live in the town where the ticket was written. The PD charges about 50 cents per mile to transport wanted people.

  • publicius

    And this is what happens when justice is linked to generating an income stream for government. Government ran as a business.

    Neither is the purpose of government and runs entirely contrary to the entire premise of government and criminal justice.

  • Name

    America is a savage country today, mostly spurred on by an evil political system. Somewhere behind all this is an even more evil architect often called an elite who are skilled at social manipulation/engineering and employing every modern device to gull the masses. People – the salt of the earth – need to say no more. Put away the television and the sport venue, the alcohol and all other superfluous distractions, stop giving them your money, take it out of the banks, grind the whole system to a halt and demand new government.

  • John Taurus

    The media is constantly hyping “The Evil White Man” and enraging Blacks to attack White people. Why? The dollar is about to be abandoned by the world as the Standard currency. It is about to be replaced by Chinese currency as the world reserve currency. At that time there will be food shortages because no one will want to accept worthless paper for something of value. When the EBT cards won’t purchase Black families food, they will blame “THE EVIL WHITE MAN” as they have been prepped to do by the press/media, then they will attempt to take what food Whites have…..or even eat the White man and his children. This is being done on purpose to insure the maximum amount of deaths when the riots start. This will give our Masters an excuse to declare Martial law, confiscate our guns, and completely enslave us without that pesky “Constitutional Rights” thing getting in the way. The world population must be reduced and the Masters see war as the primary tool, along with its buddies starvation and disease. Make war by deception. Blow up the World Trade Center and blame it on Arabs so as to get Americans into an Arab killing frenzy!!! Russia is preparing for nuclear war with the United States at this moment. Those same Masters have used the United States as a pimp would use a common whore for the last 100 years. Now that this whore is used up, she will be abandoned like a used condom. Blacks are where they are because on the totem pole of intelligence, they inhabit the very bottom. This is not racism, it is realism. One must face facts. Blacks also commit 80% of all violent crimes in this country. Whites are expected to curl up in the fetal position and let Blacks do what they want to them and any act of self-defense is labeled by the lying media as “Racism”. Wake up. There is no such thing as White privilege…..it is a joke. No one has ever given me anything for being White…..except a hard time and higher taxes!! I have heard of the NAACP. I have heard of the Black College fund. I have hear of affirmative action. None of those organizations help White people. Everything in the major media is a lie designed to herd the sheeple in the proper direction.

    • Deb

      Jon Taurus…Thank You for your response…..I think you are correct and to the point….Refreshing to read….
      Does Anyone know the Laws anymore….What is legal and not legal…?
      Please Tell Me What The Rules And Laws Are These Days…..Does Anyone Know…?

      • Mitch

        There are so many laws that you can’t possibly keep track of them all, even with a team of lawyers to help you. So it’s likely that you broke a law today, or at least in the last week, and you didn’t even know it.

        Although you didn’t know, and had no intent or “mens rea”, you are still guilty anyway, so pay up. Crime today is all about the state collecting $$$$.

        All races, including the whites, are being hit hard for $$$$. Some areas are mostly Asian, and so who do you suppose is arrested and taken to court. That’s right, the Asian people who live there! In white areas, it is mostly the whites who get arrested and taken to court. This is just common sense, but common sense is lacking from many, if not most, press articles.

  • Tom Lowe

    Oh dear, another racist anti-White screed written by a zionist whose cultural and sociopolitical peers are the very ones who generated all these warrants. The author is guilty of racism.

    • Mitch

      Well stated. Ah, so very well stated. You should comment more often!!

  • izzy

    “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” – Anatole France

    Our country has become a dark caricature of itself. Expect much more of the same.

  • nedmorlef

    Bet they didn’t bust a single gro -op in a rental.

  • guest

    “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.”
    — attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville.

    There is something like the opposite of gentrification, which makes it uncomfortable to use a buffet, public restroom, or eventually any institution, whatsoever. Assuming that it has become impossible for the small minority to participate in good faith, we have arrived at a point, somewhere between loose fiscal policy and dictatorship, both of which are objective situations and have names.

  • Gonzo Rodreigues

    I grew up in rural Iowa with two black people(employed business owners) in the town. I carved my initials in my desk in the 4th grade. My punishment? Sand down and varnish the desk! It looked so much better that 10 more kids volunteered to do the same thing! Better than a fine-and affordable!

  • jon

    Its in your ALL CAPS name. reaperishere.weebly.com

  • Greg

    Author uses the word “democratic society.”

    A republic is a protector. Democracy is mob rules. In democracy, this might be legal.

  • anticriminals

    It is all racketeering. Your government was overthrown many, many years ago. It should be obvious to anybody with eyes to see and ears to hear that it’s all about the money. It’s organized crime masquerading as government.
    Just ask yourselves this simple question; how can anyone get a fair trial/ hearing in any court that stands to make money off your conviction/ imprisonment? It truly is organized crime. If there is no victim, there is no crime. To prove a crime the government must prove an intentional damage to a victim. Anything else is theft by deception. The criminals that pretend to represent your government are the criminals and you are the victims of a war of ignorance; your ignorance of how the law should work. You should really start to question if your judges are lawful judges. This is where the buck is supposed to stop.
    The government should not be able to prosecute people of alleged crimes at their own whim. This is the reason for grand juries. Grand juries need to be a part of every criminal process. Grand juries are the peoples part as overseers of government. You must be a part of a peaceful solution or it will end in violence and it will not end well.
    People need to insist that the 4th amendment, and other parts of the constitutions, must be obeyed. You cannot insist upon it if you don’t know it. You have been deliberately educated stupid in the government’s schools for a reason. You must change this. Educate yourselves. Do not rely on the government, or its controlled news media, for the truth. You will not find it.