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Wednesday, 26 August 2015 20:27

The Criminalization of Poverty

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In today’s entry, Dr. Michael Omidi discusses the problem of jailing the poor over their inability to pay fines.

A troubling case earlier this year has called attention to a major societal issue: jailing the poor for failing to pay traffic tickets and other small fines. In January, Missouri resident Edward Brown found his deteriorating home of 25 years condemned by the city, who then sent him a $464 citation for trespassing after he remained in the property. Brown was living off of food stamps and Social Security checks, and was not able to afford to pay the fine—so he has been jailed several times since then.

Issuing arrest warrants for low-level misdemeanor violations has become a shockingly common occurrence in the U.S. as of late. Residents of impoverished communities are finding it increasingly difficult to escape the cycle of poverty under this legislature. Despite local activists’ call for reform over the past decade, no significant changes have been made on a national scale.

One rather unfortunate example is that of Nashville resident Stacey Tuell, who was living out of his car in 2013 and was arrested for a misdemeanor. While in custody, police refused his request to have someone watch his car—which was promptly towed and destroyed by the time he was able to make an attempt to retrieve it. Tuell sued, claiming his constitutional rights were violated, but the case was thrown out.

Many claim that criminalizing the poor is an underhanded way of ensuring a steady stream of city revenue—and at what cost? In May, the National Association of Public Defenders called for the reform of “predatory” criminal court practices in an official statement, some points of which are as follows:

  • Treating fines as civil cases, not criminal cases
  • Providing legal representation to indigent defendants in municipal cases
  • Factoring in a defendant’s income and financial situation before treating nonpayment of a fine as a crime
  • Ending the monetary bond

Yours in health,

Dr. Michael Omidi

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