Child Watch® Column:
Criminalizing Poverty

Release Date: May 8, 2015

Marian Wright Edelman

“Held captive.” It was how one 13-year-old described the feeling of growing up poor in our wealthy nation, and for more and more Americans living in poverty, this feeling isn’t just a metaphor. The recent Department of Justice report on police and court practices in Ferguson, Missouri put a much needed spotlight on how a predatory system of enforcement of minor misdemeanors and compounding fines can trap low-income people in a never-ending cycle of debt, poverty, and jail. In Ferguson this included outrageous fines for minor infractions like failing to show proof of insurance and letting grass and weeds in a yard get too high. In one case a woman who parked her car illegally in 2007 and couldn’t pay the initial $151 fee has since been arrested twice, spent six days in jail, paid $550 to a city court, and as of 2014 still owed the city $541 in fines, all as a result of the unpaid parking ticket. The Department of Justice found each year Ferguson set targets for the police and courts to generate more and more money from municipal fines. And Ferguson isn’t alone. The criminalization of poverty is a growing trend in states and localities across the country.

The investigation of Ferguson’s practices came after the killing of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer, and last month the practice of criminalizing poverty made headlines again after Walter Scott was killed in North Charleston, South Carolina. Scott was shot in the back by police officer Michael Slager on April 4 as he ran away after being pulled over for a broken taillight. Scott had already served time in jail for falling behind on child support, and on the day he was stopped there was a warrant out for his arrest for falling behind again. His family believes his fear of going back to jail caused him to run from the broken taillight stop. His brother told The New York Times that Walter Scott already felt trapped: “Every job he has had, he has gotten fired from because he went to jail because he was locked up for child support,” said Rodney Scott, whose brother was most recently working as a forklift operator. “He got to the point where he felt like it defeated the purpose.” A 2009 review of county jails in South Carolina found that 1 in 8 inmates was behind bars for failure to pay child support. Rodney Scott remembered his brother trying to explain to a judge that he simply did not make enough money to pay the amount ordered by the court: “And the judge said something like, ‘That’s your problem. You figure it out.’”

The Institute for Policy Studies recently released a groundbreaking new report highlighting the policies and practices that have led to increased criminalization of poverty, and that report and similar studies are finally shining a light on the way some municipalities are criminalizing poor people just for being poor. The United States legally ended the practice of debtor’s prisons in 1833, and the Supreme Court ruled in Bearden v. Georgia (1983) that it is unconstitutional to imprison those who can’t afford to pay their debt or restitution in criminal cases, unless the act of not paying debt or restitution is “willful.” But poor people are being increasingly targeted with fines and fees for misdemeanors and winding up in illegal debtors’ prisons when they can’t pay—and in some cases, then being charged additional fees for court and jail costs. A recent investigation by National Public Radio, the New York University Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Center for State Courts cited a study estimating between 80-85 percent of inmates now leave prison owing debt for court-imposed costs, restitution, fines and fees. In some jurisdictions defendants are charged for their room and board during lockup, probation and parole supervision, drug and alcohol abuse treatment, DNA samples, and even their constitutional right to a public defender. When poor people can’t pay those fees either, the cycle of debt and jail time continues.

The private companies providing probation services in more than half of the states are some of the biggest winners when poor people are targeted. If people on probation can’t afford the fees they are charged, they breach their probation contract; this can result in more jail time, making it even less likely that they’ll be earning the money they need, and people under the supervision of these private probation companies often become liable for charges exceeding the initial cost of their ticket or fine. Federal law also prohibits people in breach of probation from receiving a range of benefits, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), food stamps, and Supplemental Security Income—once again, exacerbating the cycle of poverty, probation, and prison.

And state and local policies establish barriers that make it more difficult for people who have served any time in prison, including those there because they were poor, to re-integrate into society. According to a study conducted by the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section, there are more than 38,000 documented statutes nationwide creating collateral consequences for people with criminal convictions including barriers to housing, employment, voting, and many public benefits. By denying these citizens access to basic services they need to survive, our policies needlessly increase the risk of recidivism and continue to leave people truly trapped—and when we extend the cycle of poverty by criminalizing poor people, there are only a few greedy winners and many, many losers.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by Mimi at: May 19, 2015
I believe this crisis is also a spiritual one, regardless of one's faith tradition. All of the three major traditions impress upon its students to live simply and to share their goods and time with those who are struggling, whether it be economic challenges,social or psychological pain, It seems to me that the work needs to happen in the heart and then to be actualized by a conscience that understands no human being should suffer when there are resources to help ameliorate the suffering.

Submitted by traceyhaven at: May 12, 2015
The real crime sits with the powers that be who continue to practice policies that are outdated, unjust and inhumane. Our society was based on "liberty and justice for ALL," not just the wealthy. The single parents I know-- especially moms -- are of all colors and deserve more support from the government when incomes are low. Think of the children. Please. This article shows the reality and we all need to call for change.

Submitted by Anonymous at: May 11, 2015
This is so shameful. America must do better.

Submitted by Ed at: May 11, 2015
Thank you Dr. Edelman for outlining, with these clear examples, the cyclical and nonsensical nature of the systems that are in place to continue to defeat the poor. These cycles hold not only individuals but entire families hostage to living conditions that demoralize them and reduce their self esteem and feelings of belonging to their societies. This leads to feelings of alienation...and eventually fear, hostility and anger. Sometimes people can see no way out and with the poor quality of life they are forced to lead, they grow to devalue their own worth and life and eventually, that of others as well. I am very bothered that a nation that has found ways to spend so many billions in exploring outer space, can effect the most intricate of repairs on the Hubble telescope while in orbit, can create cyber programs, spend so many billions on organized sports and entertainment, cannot create a system that affords its citizens a decent quality of life. It is absolutely doable...but only a few are trying. If we were to make this a matter of our very conscience and our will for humanity-revisiting the bases upon which our systems are built and just using plain commonsense to address these issues, we could make a great difference. Please continue the good work and I look forward to joining your effort someday soon!

Submitted by Gigi at: May 11, 2015
I like to know what is being done about these practices. It seems that we are spending money to lock up a person who is not making enough money on their present job to pay the amount of child support that the court has order, this takes one of the parents out of the childs life and it lessen that parents ability to obtain employment upon release creating a never ending cycle of one parent homes, dependence on low income housing etc. something needs to be done. I had a heart attack. One bill was 50,000. I was working part-time less than 25 hours per week at 8.05 hr. After the surgery I was not working at all. Medication just one was 90.00 a month. with nojob and no income I couldn't afford toget the medication I was prescribed and needed to reduced the risk of another heart attack. when the doctor released me from care to restricted duty the job I was working said the did not have any positions that I could work, no money. I was taken to court and told that I had to paid the amount agreed on every month. This added more stress to my life which lead to another heart attack that lead to more surgery and more bills and more stress. No job no income the bills kept coming. Life for the poor is a cycle. The hospital would not reduce the bills...the collection agency took over more stress and harassing calls. I found another part time job but with rent, light, water, sewage, phone, mandatory insurance I have found myself in deep debt to loan agencies as i try topay for services rendered. I am not in good health but i have to work to keep a roof over my head. I fell behind in the medical payment and now my checks are being garnished thus putting me further in debt.I amnot complaining I want to pay what I owe.

Submitted by Cindy at: May 11, 2015
Greedy people like the private sector that makes money off the backs of the poor aren't going to feel anything for these folks. What can we do?

Submitted by wludy at: May 11, 2015
Same thing happened to me. In 1999 I was arrested for not carrying my valid FL. drivers license, forgot my wallet. Then I had moved and could not find out my court date. Suspended for failure to appear, I was fired from my job due to zero tolerance. I have since been hit by a car as a predestrian and am disabled. No one will hire a person with a suspended DL and I have not been able to straighten out my license due to lack of funds. So I now live in a strange city, and have not driven since 1999. All because of a clerical mistake. This has ruined my life. I have lost a home and family because Dade Co. DMV is full of idiots.

Submitted by lillie at: May 11, 2015
Our system is designed for failure

Submitted by Anonymous at: May 11, 2015
Our justice system is design to keep the poor poor.

Submitted by Refral at: May 10, 2015
Thought provoking!

Submitted by Tam at: May 10, 2015
This was a great article. Now what do we do to change these laws? The child support laws need to be restructured, you can't pay if you're in jail.

Submitted by foregonelegacy at: May 10, 2015
This is a national problem, it is people in position of power becoming ego-maniacs. If you are in any way different from the rest of the community they seek you out. And when they know you can't pay. They rack up the fees even higher. And yet we should still trust any kind of authority?

Submitted by konaohana at: May 9, 2015
The idea that jurisdictions can entrap pour people enslaving "we the people" for profit by fines that are created to further enslave citizens. This ABUSE by the jurisdictions is illegal. The DOJ is required to uphold the law not the abuse.

Submitted by Shiloh at: May 9, 2015
How can I help?

Submitted by Ityoppya S. Love at: May 9, 2015
Jah love. This is a wonderful article and I feel that there are so many other ways that the system criminalizes impoverishment and further oppress those most in need. One such way is that unemployed folks who cannot afford housing are often forced to live in abusive conditions and/or in shelters that are inadequate. And in my case, when me and my children "failed" to comply with the rules and regulations (I could not find work), my children were entrapped into the foster kill shitstem and it became a nightmare to reunite with them. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of thousands of innocent and good folks caught up in this insane capitalist spiral and the Democrats have not shown the willingness to even acknowledge that this is a problem. In fact, as recently as a few months ago when folks in Detroit faced evictions and jail for unpaid water bills, one social justice activist admitted to Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! that kids were routinely taken away from their loving parents and locked up in foster kill because their housing was considered unsuitable for lack of water. I was outraged by the fact that this woman also claimed that the foster kill families are paid thousands of dollars to care for children whose parent are able and willing to nurture them but cannot afford to. I sure hope and pray that we can work to end this injustice soon before it is too late for our black families. Blessed love.

Submitted by Skip at: May 9, 2015
We are all losers when we deny ourselves the benefitt of the creative minds and energies of our fellow citizens for reasons that have nothing to do with the common good.

Submitted by Nick at: May 9, 2015
This essay is clear, honest look at the criminalization of poverty in both Ferguson and in this nation. But, please, show compassion and consider the 1%'s position when it comes to manning their $1 an hour prison factory jobs...what better way to become even richer and more powerful and have even more control over the poor masses. We are the people and our day is coming soon.

Submitted by MD at: May 9, 2015
In a polarized society warped by materialism and declining respect for human life, we must stand up for and fiercely defend the inherent dignity of the human person as the foundation of our society. How we organize our society; in economics and politics, in law and policy, directly affects human dignity and capacity of individuals to grow in community. Every person has the right to those things required for human decency, including dignified employment. Our leaders have a moral function; to promote human dignity, protect human rights and build the common good in assisting citizens in fulfilling their responsibility to others in society. For those individuals with a criminal past seeking employment, their rights must be protected; the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to private property and economic initiative to support themselves and their families. "All are responsible for all." Pope John Paul II The challenge is to live lives in common with all; a combination of good and goad; sharing His generous gifts while goading to help create a world as He intended. . Michael Doyle Tampa

Submitted by Dr Mike at: May 8, 2015
Well, I believe MRE is correct. Perhaps, the sad truth is that some industries and parts of the economy benefit from having prisoners. I believe private prisoners and parole is an example of a true conflict of interest. No doubt the so called profit motive would suggest that private prisoners would discourage re-rehabilitation so as to keep a "full-house" or in hospital-speak "heads-on-the-beds." MWE is spot on and I believe that these mean times and ways speak that the "Avarice" recommended by Ayn Rand and her acolytes has this enslavement of the poor to replace those freed after the Civil War. Who is John Gault? He is the CEO of a new private prision corporation.

Submitted by iconimmortal at: May 8, 2015
Look at all the prisons in Washington state. I've seen cops beat people in Portland Oregon, it's illegal to flim them there. They gunned down a guy in cold blood. I remember when they gunned down a ten year old black student. They used to wear, don't choke um , smoke um t shirts. They use money for.New jails and prisons instead of schools.