Criminalizing The Poor

From The Ramparts ~

 Junious Ricardo Stanton ~

  “If anything, the criminalization of poverty has accelerated since the recession, with growing numbers of states drug testing applicants for temporary assistance, imposing steep fines for school truancy, and imprisoning people for debt. Such measures constitute a cruel inversion of the Johnson-era principle that it is the responsibility of government to extend a helping hand to the poor. Sadly, this has become the means by which the wealthiest country in the world manages to remain complacent in the face of alarmingly high levels of poverty: by continuing to blame poverty not on the economy or inadequate social supports, but on the poor themselves.” It is Expensive to Be Poor Barbara Ehrenreich


The veneer of the Untied States as the bastion of opportunity and the fanciful Horatio Alger rags to riches narrative is being replaced by an increasingly rigid system based upon wealth and color. The U.S. economy despite what the corporate mind control apparatus says is stagnant at least for working class folks and more and more working class people are falling into poverty and they can’t get up.

Today in America it is devastating to be poor. Not only are the poor denigrated and stigmatized, they are being criminalized in such a way it will make it even more difficult to get back on their feet and  move out of their impoverished circumstances into a better and possibly higher socio-economic state and status. A report by the Institute for Policy Studies called The Poor Get Prison The Alarming Spread of the Criminalization of Poverty by Karen Dolan and Jodi L. Carr concluded by saying,  “We are a nation that has turned its welfare system into a criminal system. We criminalize life-sustaining activities of people too poor to afford shelter. We incarcerate more people than any other nation in the world. And we institute policies that virtually bar them for life from participating in society once they have done their time. We have allowed the resurgence of debtors’ prisons. We’ve created a second tier public education system for poor children and black and Latino children that disproportionally criminalizes their behavior and sets them early onto the path of incarceration and lack of access to assistance and opportunity.”

3828837867?profile=originalA study by the National Poverty Center called the Colors of Poverty: Why Racial and Ethnic Disparities Persist concluded that poverty was the result of systemic disparities over a period of time and that one metric of poverty often impacted others creating a cyclical effect which made it difficult for a person living in poverty to extricate him or herself from being poor.  Some of their findings were: “Racial disparities in poverty result from cumulative disadvantage over the life course, as the effects of hardship in one domain spill over into other domains. In the U.S., one of every three African American children and one of every four Latino children live in poverty— two times higher than the rate for white children. Whites report better overall health than blacks, Latinos, and Asians, even after controlling for poverty, education, and unemployment. The collateral consequences of felony conviction—such as bans on entering many occupations, on voting, jury service, and receiving federal college loans and grants—harm both ex-offenders and their communities. Residents of a predominately black or Hispanic neighborhood have access to roughly half as many social services as those in predominately white neighborhoods.”

The United States’ level of wealth inequality is staggering.  Now it is worsening every year. “The overall wealth pie has grown but almost all of the gains have gone to the wealthiest 1 percent of households. The top 1 percent of households currently have more wealth than the bottom 95 percent combined. While real wages have fallen for half of U.S. workers, compensation to top managers and CEOs has skyrocketed. Inequality in wages is at an all time high. During the last twenty-five years, three out of four U.S. wage-earners have lost ground on the job. In real terms this means that people’s wages have not kept up with inflation or that workers have lost some portion of the benefits they previously had. Instead of having a pension or 100 percent health care coverage, many workers now have no retirement security or pay some or all of their health care costs. Many workers are now temporary or part time workers with no benefits. Some have lost their jobs and have not been able to find a comparable paying job or any job at all.” Economic Apartheid In America A Primer on Economic Inequality and Insecurity. Revised and Updated  2005 By Chuck Collins and Felice Yeskel page 6.

3828837790?profile=originalTo make matters worse the U.S. is increasingly making it a crime to be poor. Go Online and find the Institute for Policy Studies report The Poor Get Prison it documents how local state and federal policies are placing a heavy and unfair burden on poor people. Black and Brown people have always been targeted by law enforcement and the judicial system but now figures reveal that the sordid U.S history of racial animus, bias and this prejudice is embedded into the very fabric of every institution in this nation. Employment discrimination and difficulties for Black and Latino communities to establish their own banking and financial institutions makes in almost impossible to create a viable economic infrastructure so many turn to the street hustle which includes petty crime and the drug trade.

3828837912?profile=original Policy makers decided to wage a war on drugs but it was the small time street level dealers who were profiled and targeted rather than the large scale traffickers probably because the large drug traffickers (like the US CIA and Too Big To Fail Banks like Wacovia) were in cahoots with the law and public policy makers.  “Public policies labeled the ‘War on Drugs’ of the 1980s and 1990s largely targeted minorities—a fact recognized by politicians and policymakers, and documented by research. In 1993, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned that by choosing policies focused on prohibition of drugs “we are choosing to have an intense crime problem concentrated among minorities”. Researcher Michael Tonry noted that, ‘[a]nyone with knowledge of drug trafficking patterns and of police arrest policies and incentives could have foreseen that the enemy troops in the War on Drugs would consist largely of young, inner-city, minority males. Since the mid- 1980s, the War on Drugs has produced legislative initiatives by politicians attempting to demonstrate that public safety is a priority. However, evidence suggests that by 1989 drug use was in decline, except among poor urban minorities. Apparently, the proponents of using the tough criminal sanctions rather than other strategies (e.g., those linked to public health) to curtail drug use in these communities knew, or chose to ignore, that it would disproportionately affect young blacks and Hispanics and their communities. The federal statutes relating to crack prescribe a five-year mandatory prison term for possession of five grams of crack cocaine; but under the same law, possession of five hundred grams of powder cocaine is required for the same five-year prison term. In 1999, 85 percent of those serving long sentences for crack cocaine under this law were African American. The tougher policy for crack was based on the belief that it was more addictive and a greater threat to public safety. Economic competition in illicit street crack markets produced significant violence in poor communities, but not crack addiction. Powder cocaine markets, however, were concentrated indoors in wealthier communities, thereby avoiding the violence but not the addiction. Policies emphasizing the criminal rather than the public health aspects of the use and trafficking of illegal drugs over the past two decades, coupled with more aggressive policing against street crack markets in poor urban communities contributed to widening racial disparities in the criminal justice system and produced consequences of crisis proportions in the black community, especially for young black males. Increases in drug arrests combined with an increased use of incarceration for punishment for drug offenses during the 1990s had a particularly severe effect on minority youth. Drug arrests for juveniles (10 to 17 age group) in the 1980 to 1993 period fell 28 percent for whites but increased by 231 percent for blacks. In 1980, black and white rates for juvenile drug arrests were similar; by 1993 black rates were more than four times the white rate (Figure 1), and 46 percent of all juvenile drug arrests were black youth”  Race Ethnicity and the Criminal Justice System American Sociological Association Department of Research and Development

It’s not just drug dealers who feel the brunt of “the system” that keeps poor folks in a never ending spiral of lack and disadvantage. The whole system is stacked against the poor to the point if you get down and out and become homeless you are treated like a leper and a criminal. In a tanking economy where only the super rich are doing well, one unanticipated medical episode, a major home repair bill, accident or family crisis can be financially catastrophic.  To add insult to injury often it is those kinds of situations that cause people to enter the social welfare or “justice” systems and experience their callousness and antipathy.

            Wall Street fraud and speculation almost took down the US and global economies but not one bankster or hedge fund operator was indicted or went to jail.  Yet if you are a working class person and you fall on hard times, collection agency and police harassment, court and jail may be in your future.  Once in the system you can be nickel and dimed for fines and fees and if you are unable to pay you can end up in jail. Go to to see a state by state list of fees and fines many poor people are subjected to once they enter the system for even the most trifling reasons. Poor and homeless people are especially being targeted.  “Tonight, thousands of homeless people in the United States will face the possibility of arrest because they do not have a safe place to sleep. Thousands more could be arraigned for sitting or standing in the wrong place. While they must sleep rest their legs, homeless people live in cities where these and other life sustaining activities are against the law, even though shelters face a critical shortage of beds.

Criminalization laws can take many forms.  Most commonly, they outlaw sitting, sleeping in vehicles or outdoors, lying down, ‘hanging out,’ sharing food, and camping. What makes them even more insidious is that they can be difficult to detect. Curfews on public parks are often explained by municipalities as a way to deter drug-related crimes.  In reality, they are frequently a way to ensure that homeless people don’t use park benches as beds. By not having enough safe sleeping spaces, cities are forcing their homeless persons to live on the streets with virtually no other options, and then arresting them for doing so. These laws represent a gross violation of human rights, and have received a large amount of criticism from civil rights advocates around the country and the world…There has been a nationwide increase in criminalization laws since 2011, despite mounting evidence that criminalization is the most expensive and least effective way to deal with homelessness. As cities increasingly opt for these bad policies, there will eventually be no safe place left for homeless people. Instead, communities should focus on constructive alternatives to criminalization that actually work; policies like the ‘housing first’ strategy that provides housing and supportive services to homeless people and is also much less costly than the price of jail stays and emergency room visits.” No Safe Place: How Cities Are Making It Illegal to Be Homeless

Things are getting so bad in the U.S.  it won’t be long before we’re living in a hi-tech version of Charles Dickens England where being poor is a crime in and of itself.



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