Casey-Funded Report Documents the Criminalization of Poverty

Posted March 5, 2018
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
N blog criminilizationofpoverty 2018

In Mary­land, state and local poli­cies place finan­cial bur­dens on those who can least afford it. It’s a sys­tem that caus­es unnec­es­sary arrests, crim­i­nal charges and the impris­on­ment of poor peo­ple, accord­ing to a new Casey-fund­ed study and report.

Cur­rent­ly in Mary­land, jus­tice is only served to those who can pay for it,” accord­ing to The Crim­i­nal­iza­tion of Pover­ty. Authored by the Bal­ti­more-based non­prof­it, Job Oppor­tu­ni­ties Task Force, the report calls for replac­ing exist­ing poli­cies and prac­tices that dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly crim­i­nal­ize the poor, espe­cial­ly peo­ple of col­or, with those that ensure equi­ty, fair­ness and jus­tice for all.”

The Crim­i­nal­iza­tion of Pover­ty arrives three years after the upris­ing that grew from Fred­die Gray’s death. In addi­tion to doc­u­ment­ing how res­i­dents in low-income com­mu­ni­ties are crim­i­nal­ized, the report also out­lines the far-reach­ing con­se­quences of hav­ing a crim­i­nal record and iden­ti­fies four ways that low-income indi­vid­u­als —par­tic­u­lar­ly peo­ple of col­or — run a greater risk of enter­ing the crim­i­nal jus­tice system.

These path­ways are:

  1. Racial pro­fil­ing: the prac­tice of tar­get­ing peo­ple for sus­pi­cion of crime based on their race, eth­nic­i­ty, reli­gion or nation­al origin.
  2. Civ­il asset for­fei­ture: actions where police seize assets and prop­er­ty if they sus­pect it has been involved in crim­i­nal activ­i­ty — even if the own­er is innocent.
  3. Motor vehi­cle laws: poli­cies that make the cost of own­ing and main­tain­ing a car — as well as penal­ties for non­com­pli­ance — dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly high for low-income individuals.
  4. Col­lec­tion of child sup­port and civ­il debts: a process that includes harsh enforce­ment mea­sures — includ­ing incar­cer­a­tion — when non­cus­to­di­al par­ents are unable to pay. Such mea­sures can serve as bar­ri­ers to employ­ment and fur­ther the impov­er­ish­ment and crim­i­nal­iza­tion of poor parents.

How the Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Sys­tem Weighs on the Poor

The Crim­i­nal­iza­tion of Pover­ty also explores how, post-arrest, cer­tain groups face dis­parate treat­ment and out­comes com­pared to oth­ers. Poor­er indi­vid­u­als are often unable to post even low bail amounts and are more like­ly to be impact­ed by and unable to afford fees and fines, both court-spe­cif­ic and court-relat­ed. Such hur­dles can set off a chain reac­tion of chal­lenges, includ­ing lost wages, hous­ing insta­bil­i­ty, job loss, missed child sup­port pay­ments, unpaid bills and wors­en­ing phys­i­cal and men­tal health.

How Hav­ing a Crim­i­nal Record Per­pet­u­ates Poverty

Anoth­er issue cov­ered in the report: the debil­i­tat­ing impact of sanc­tions and restric­tions — both social and legal — that can trail a crim­i­nal record. Near­ly 1 in 4 peo­ple in Mary­land — and 1 in 3 Amer­i­cans nation­al­ly — has a crim­i­nal record. These indi­vid­u­als reen­tered soci­ety with a range of col­lat­er­al con­se­quences already work­ing against them. Often prompt­ed by sim­ple ques­tions — such as job appli­ca­tions ask­ing about pri­or con­vic­tions — col­lat­er­al con­se­quences can quick­ly slow or stop search­es for hous­ing, employ­ment or even pub­lic assis­tance. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, these sanc­tions and restric­tions can mush­room into insur­mount­able obsta­cles that can under­mine an individual’s best efforts to rebuild their life.

Pol­i­cy Reforms to Break the Cycle of Crim­i­nal­iz­ing Poverty

The authors of The Crim­i­nal­iza­tion of Pover­ty advo­cate for pol­i­cy reforms in areas where laws and sys­tems dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly impact low-income indi­vid­u­als, espe­cial­ly peo­ple of color.

Their rec­om­men­da­tions, out­lined in the report, include:

  • lim­it­ing the use of cash bail;
  • deter­min­ing abil­i­ty to pay before impos­ing fees;
  • abol­ish­ing civ­il asset forfeiture;
  • expand­ing the statewide Ban the Box” law;
  • con­tin­u­ing to expand and sim­pli­fy expunge­ment; and
  • opt­ing out of the felony drug ban on TANF (TCA) and SNAP.

If we are going to break this cycle,” says Scot Spencer, asso­ciate direc­tor of advo­ca­cy and influ­ence at the Casey Foun­da­tion, we must start by tak­ing a hard look at our poli­cies and prac­tices and strip them of the things that keep peo­ple trapped in pover­ty. Instead of bury­ing folks in debt and stig­ma, let’s look for ways to pro­vide resources and sup­port to those with crim­i­nal records so that they can cre­ate a bet­ter life for them­selves and their families.”

Learn more about Casey’s efforts to sup­port return­ing citizens

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