Is it a crime to be Poor?

Up to the 19th century, people recognized poverty as a crime of sorts. Special prisons existed for those people who were debtors to other people or even to the state in forms of fines and defaulting to pay taxes. Not only was this move seen to be barbaric but also ill-advised. How would locking a person in jail ensure that they paid their dues? Actually, contrary to what was expected happened: people continued to be looked up in prison and the debt remained. This was what saw this ill-advised system faced off and instead, debtors were kept away from prison and thus were able to work and pay the debt they owed. However, forwarding time to the 21st century, the United States has re-introduced the system of debtor’s prisons, begging the question whether it is again a crime to poor. This essay discusses the issue of how it has now literally become a crime in the United States to be poor, and whether such state of affairs has legal or logical ground for existence.

In the United States, the poor live in fear of being taken to prison. Their crime is being unable to pay certain fiscal obligations. The American municipalities continue to fine and jail already poor people not only driving them deeper into poverty but thus also criminalizing the fact that someone is poor. According to a famous New York journalist Terrell Jermaine Starr, in the last ten years, it has become obvious that living in poverty is turning into a crime in various communities and cities and this crime is punishable by, no matter how ridiculous it may sound, further impoverishment. As an example, Starr outlines the Ferguson report in which the city has disproportionately charged the majority of the minor population with different traffic and other small infractions that are under the municipality’s jurisdiction. This is also the case for New York City which has also increased the number of their minor infractions, such as stepping on subway seats and sitting on pavements among others. The reason why such actions are seen to target predominantly the poor people is because the rich have an opportunity to easily get out of such infractions by either hiring the best lawyers to argue their case or simply paying the fines. For the poor people who cannot afford to pay the fines, theirs is to end up between prison walls. On the other hand, the government authorities are constitutionally obliged to keep within the letter of the law and resort to monetary penalties.

Different trends show that the government is seemingly deliberately making it a crime to be poor. The first trend is that the government is jailing probationers who cannot afford to pay their fines and fees. In America, more than 4 million citizens get on probation annually. There has been a decrease in the amount of money allocated to probation services and as a result, different private companies have undertaken the duty of managing probationers. For this service, the companies do not charge the municipal council. Rather, each person on probation is charged a fee for supervision, and if the fee is not paid, the probationer faces time in prison. Another trend that shows that the government is making it a crime to be in a poor financial condition is taking the assets that are owned by poor people through asset forfeit seizures. The asset forfeit seizure is a program by the Department of Justice under which the police can take someone’s property just because of ‘reasonable suspicion’ that the property aided in committing the crime. Through this program, cash and assets of more than $3billion have been seized by the police. Additionally, about 80% of the property usually remains with the police or state agency that seized it. Starr underlines that the minority are disproportionately affected by this program. Given that the working families of the minorities are as twice as likely as the rest of the population to low income, then they are less than likely to possess the required finances to reclaim the seized assets. Nevertheless, it is believed by many US citizens that only by taking the valuable belongings of the criminals it is possible to noticeably impact their behavior.

One more trend showing that it is increasingly becoming illegal to be a poor citizen is the continual expulsion and suspension of the poor students in schools. Most African American students in public schools are considered to be from humble backgrounds. They make up about 16% of the entire student population yet represent between 32%-42% of the total students either expelled or suspended from school. Most schools in various states use the police force to enhance security and as a result, the students who get suspensions or expulsions face a risk of arrest too. Having security provided by the police and a zero tolerance policy, the learning environment is a harsh one for the minority population. There is also a presumption that African American students are more prone to become criminals or cause trouble in schools than the other students and this plays a huge role in the differences in the discipline levels and intensity between the white and African American students. Therefore, these are the students that are most likely to serve juvenile sentences. Having records means that finding a job is an uphill task. What this says is that such policies instead of serving to help the poor and the minority serves as a tool of impoverishing them further. Despite this, every person regardless of their financial status can realize himself or herself in studies and make the academic environment completely favorable by demonstrating diligence, handwork and positive social interaction.

Hyper-criminalizing petty crimes is also another trend proving that the government, or rather various municipalities, are seeing it a crime to live in poverty. According to Starr, New York is seeking to upgrade make minor infractions, such as urinating in a public place into serious offences. Starr also adds that since 2001, about 81% of citizens that have received punishment and fines from these ‘broken windows’ policies have been the African Americans and the Latino Americans. Most of them are from the poorest neighborhoods in New York. This has not only been experienced in New York but is also a trend that Ferguson has picked up. The city budget in Ferguson expects that 23% of the main budget will come from the police department while enforcing the municipal codes. A Ferguson resident narrated how her vehicle was towed after lacking a tire. She said that she preferred paying the fine that was imposed on her that amounted to $1200 rather than go to court and fight that ticket with the risk of facing jail time. This shows the kind of fines imposed by the municipality which the poor cannot pay, thus face jail time. Such policies need to be eliminated since they are disproportional to the poor. Nonetheless, while under the growing pressures and increased crime rate of today any modern democratic state must primarily take proper care of its citizens’ welfare, the tightening of certain policies can be justified.

Again, the government has made being pauper a crime by requiring that the people left without a shelter pay fines for being homeless. In a single night, about six hundred thousand people are homeless in the whole country. This has been attributed to the loss of 13% of the country’slow-income housing, and many people simply cannot afford to regain the housing as the cost on it has sky-rocketed. Starr adds that 345 of the US cities have banned camping in public areas, 18% have prohibited sleeping anywhere in the open air within the city boundaries, and about 43% of the cities have banned using vehicles as houses. Therefore, most homeless people end up being fined for at least one of the above laws. Without having a means by which to pay the fines, they end up serving jail time. Such an example can be seen from Missouri in which a homeless resident has served prison term for at least two times for failing to pay these fines. Such an instance shows how those who are homeless risk facing jail time for not paying the fines they cannot escape. However, such consequences can well be avoided if a person goes to many of the charity shelters providing beds for the citizens without homes. Unfortunately, not all for some reasons want to use such an opportunity.

From the already discussed trends it is obvious that a problem exists and needs solving. Being poor should definitely not be considered a crime that deserves a jail term by the government. Therefore, various solutions are now available and have been offered to enable poor people who are unable to pay their fines instead of serving a jail time. A person just needs to approach for help instead of struggling with the issues by themselves. One of the solutions is creating a workable payment plan. In this respect, instead of paying off the fine at once, the government can allow the accused to pay their fines in instalments that suit for them in terms of their present-day earnings. This gives the accused the chance to pay the fines slowly but regularly with a plan that is favorable to them. Another solution offered is paying fines with community service hours. This is the best way out since even the poorest will be able to do this. Instead of paying with money which is naturally scarce, the fines can be paid using the hours of community service. The government, who are the main stakeholders, should work together with other stakeholders to ensure that such policies come to pass instead of incurring extra costs in form of taxpayers’ money by jailing those that are unable to pay their fines.

In conclusion, the United States has reinstated the laws that had long been done away and within which the debtors who were unable to settle their debts were taken to prison. In today’s form of debtor prisons, as strange as it may be taking into consideration the time we live in, the poor who are unable to pay various fines imposed by the government also end up in jail “to pay for not paying their fines”. The downside to this trend is that even after they are jailed, the fines do not get paid. However, the government is also justified in passing the various measures it undertakes to enhance the rule of law, and even ensure that cities are clean. Without making the radical steps to deal with huge and petty crimes, the people would not take the laws seriously. Conversely, instead of jailing, the government should rather use the policies encouraging other forms of payments such as offering a workable payment plan, or even allow paying the fines in the form of community service hours, both of which will be more beneficial for the society than simply sitting in prison.

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