At 'tipping point'

‘Fighting criminalization’ of poverty explored Feb. 19

By Frank Weir
Legal News

The criminalization of the poor is “the civil rights issue of our time and it’s exciting to see it move to center stage,” said a key U.S. Department of Justice official at a February 19 symposium in Ann Arbor.

Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, was the keynote speaker at a seminar titled, “Innocent Until Proven Poor, Fighting the Criminalization of Poverty,” sponsored by the Michigan Journal of Race and Law. In her talk at the University of Michigan Law School, Gupta said the criminal justice system in Ferguson, Mo. is promoting loss and distrust among residents of the St. Louis suburb.

As an example, Gupta pointed to the case of a Ferguson woman who owed $102 in parking fines. After missing required court appearances in the matter, the woman amassed additional fines and penalties amounting to $1,500, coupled with jail time, a lost job, and allegations of child neglect.

Gupta noted that other fines in Ferguson were even more troubling, including $302 for a single Manner of Walking violation; $427 for a single Peace Disturbance violation; $531 for High Grass and Weeds; $777 for Resisting Arrest; and $792 for Failure to Obey and $527 for Failure to Comply.

She said that many violations required court appearances – 229 of 376 municipal offenses are “must appears,” including dog nuisance, failure to remove leaf debris, and equipment violations. The court dates are scheduled at times that are difficult for people to appear because of work or child care responsibilities, which then resulted in arrest warrants and further fines.

A Department of Justice report last year showed that, as of December 2014, the Boston Municipal Court System, for a city of 645,000 people, issued some 2,300 criminal warrants. The Ferguson Municipal Court issued 9,000, for a population 1/30th the size of Boston’s. Experts noted that a large part of the population of Ferguson had an outstanding warrant for their arrest.

And with 6,500 municipal courts nationwide, Gupta said Ferguson likely is not the only problem area.

Although Gupta told the audience that she “sees these problems every day, I do believe we are seeing a different opportunity. We could be on the cusp of major change, across different political perspectives, and one shared sense that we need to come together and fix what has been a terrible wrong in our justice system.

“We at the Justice Department feel we need a more effective system, more fair, with more prudent spending,” Gupta said.  “No mater how long and deeply rooted, we can make progress.”

Gupta added that a sense of urgency is necessary, but that “the laws we are working to end have been built over 40 years with politicization over these issues.

“Change won’t happen over night but we are at a tipping point and we can anticipate tremendous change,” she said.

Gupta outlined several critical issues around the criminalizing of the poor during her presentation. In addition to court fines and fees that can devastate the poor, she cited other legislative efforts to punish the poor including criminalizing basic human activities such as sitting, sleeping or camping in public places, in essence criminalizing homelessness; inadequate court representation for indigents; unfair pretrial systems and bail practices; and unfair sentencing issues.

Citing her belief that criminalizing homelessness violates the Eighth Amendment, she said that, “Beyond the constitutional issues, criminalizing homelessness is poor public policy. It does nothing to break the cycle of poverty.”

She noted the same concern for bail practices that are often based on wealth status and not the protection of the community.

“This year is the 50th anniversary of the Bail Reform Act of 1966 which fundamentally changed federal bail practices. The act required an individualized assessment of the likelihood of a defendant to reappear in court as the only basis for bail so that no one is needlessly detained before trial,” she said.

“But some systems still link jail time with the insufficiency of money and accused can’t afford to pay for their release.  Pre-trial detention should be designed to protect the community and not be based on wealth status. It is a fact that many in jail can’t afford their freedom. This causes a devastating impact on our most vulnerable communities.”

Regarding representation, Gupta noted that “too many face barriers to justice denying the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright.

“In too many communities, there are insufficient funds for indigent representation,” Gupta said. “Attorneys serve in name only due to high caseloads and lack of funding for defense investigation and experts.”
She noted that all these practices can cause people to lose their homes, jobs, and family members, as they struggle to cope with inadequate funds and incarceration.

“There’s a common thread, a lot of interconnectedness. People who are punished for the size of their wallets raise serious constitutional concerns. It does not promote public safety and it undermines our criminal justice system and threatens the foundation of our democracy. Too many see justice as for the wealthy only.”

Gupta concluded that “many eyes are looking at this problem and we can’t let the moment go by and miss our window of opportunity. If we don’t reach for reform, we should be ashamed of ourselves. It has taken too many years to get to this point and we have to work to make sure equal justice and fundamental fairness are accessible to everyone and not just a few.”

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