When Being Poor Becomes A Crime: The Criminalization of Poverty

A person who had just been released from prison.

Published Oct 05, 2020

It’s not a secret that in the US (and in most of the world), rich people can easily get away with crime. While poor people can go to jail for even the most minor offenses.

As unfair as it sounds, it’s the reality that we are living in today. Our system itself is set up to put poor people at a disadvantage. Instead of helping them, it has instead allowed the criminalization of poverty. And it’s time that we, as a nation, puts a stop to it.

How Poverty Can Lead to Incarceration in the US

When you take a good look into the factors that lead to the criminalization of poverty in the US, it all boils down to these four:

1. Strict Policing

As we all know, low-income neighborhoods are often subjected to strict policing. Crimes that seem too trivial like sleeping in parks or broken taillights become misdemeanor charges. In wealthier neighborhoods, these offenses would have just earned a shrug at best and a reprimand at worse.

When people from low-income neighborhoods get arrested, they are often trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of debt, probation, and incarceration. It doesn’t just take away their freedom. It also takes away most of their rights including the right to become parents.

2. Exorbitant Fines and Fees

For certain minor offenses, the court would just issue a fine rather than send the offender to prison. But for poor offenders, these fines might as well have been a prison sentence.

You see, most of the time, these fines are way more than what the average worker can afford. For instance, the fine for not paying traffic tickets can be as high as $2,000 in some states. If the offender fails to pay that fine, the court can issue an arrest warrant. They end up in prison, get separated from their families, lose their jobs, and sometimes even their homes. Basically, their life is destroyed all because they failed to pay a $2,000 fine.

But what the law and the system itself failed to take into account is why that person failed to pay the fine in the first place. Did they purposely ignore the ticket? Or is it because paying the fine would mean missing meals for several days or falling behind on rent?

Obviously, these sky-high fines and penalties put low-income people at a disadvantage. Rich people won’t have any problem paying a $2,000 traffic ticket. But if you’re a minimum-wage earner, that is an insanely high amount to pay for a simple violation.

What makes this even more aggravating is that white-collar criminals and Wall Street fraudsters only gets a slap on the wrist. They only get a few years in prison when most of them have intentionally defrauded thousands of people of their hard-earned money.

Poverty and crime word colors formed in metal

3. Ridiculous Policies

Aside from exorbitant fines and penalties, one of the reasons why poor people are filling up the country’s jails and prisons are ridiculous policies.

In some cities, for example, camping in public places is strictly prohibited. Though these anti-camping ordinances mean well, it is prejudicial towards homeless people. Instead of helping them get decent housing, the system is throwing them behind bars.

Chronic nuisance ordinances in some cities are also contributing to the criminalization of poverty in the country. This ordinance aims to penalize landlords and tenants who call the police too many times to their premises. But while this helps save taxpayer money, it also criminalizes the mere act of seeking police assistance. Instead of helping, it punishes domestic violence survivors who often come from underprivileged backgrounds.

In states like Michigan and Missouri, prisoners are also charged for board and meals. Yes, even in prison, people have to pay rent. As if they wanted to be there in the first place. Besides, prison jobs (if they are lucky to have one) pay only a few cents an hour. They basically have no income while incarcerated. So when they go out, they often find themselves neck-deep in debt. After a few months, they find themselves in debtors prison and as their prison debts pile up, the cycle continues.

4. Institutional Racism

Whether we admit it or not, racism is still very much alive in the country. In fact, it has seeped so deep in our society that it affects almost every aspect of it including our justice system and police enforcement.

This is evidenced by how low-income African-American neighborhoods are more strictly policed than others. Under the guise of enforcing community peace and order, many of them end up getting arrested even without proper evidence. And with no way to raise bail money, they have to spend years in prison while waiting for trial. Even if they’re proven to be innocent years later, chances are they don’t have a life to return to.

The Role of Government in Criminalizing Poverty

Aside from the factors mentioned above, the government also pays a huge role in the criminalization of poverty in the country.

Did you know that excessive fines on non-jailable offenses started when the government proposed huge tax cuts? The tax breaks given to the rich were instead made up for in astronomical fines and penalties from offenders. It’s basically taking away taxation duties from the rich and passing it to the offenders.

In a perfect world, that setup would have been ideal. But as it is, those fines barely affect the rich. Yet, it creates an unnecessary burden for the poor. And it’s unnecessarily sending them behind bars.

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Judy Ponio an author for GlobalTel

About The Author

Judy Ponio is a firm believer in the power of sharing knowledge. Having extensive experience in the prison industry, she wants to share what she knows with the world. Judy also loves to write about political and legal topics.