Category Archives: Criminalization of Poverty

New Article: “A Fine Scheme: How Municipal Fines Become Crushing Debt in the Shadow of the New Debtors’ Prison”

New Article: Torie Atkinson, A Fine Scheme: How Municipal Fines Become Crushing Debt in the Shadow of the New Debtors’ Prison, 51 Harv. CR-CL __ (forthcoming 2016).  Abstract below:

As state and local budgets tighten, municipalities have turned to civil fines and penalties to fill empty coffers. Beginning in the 1960s, these fines and fees, often termed legal financial obligations (“LFOs”) or economic sanctions, arose as a way to shift the costs of criminal adjudication to those “using” the system: those charged with criminal activity. Defendants in criminal cases began having to pay restitution, court costs, room and board, and even public defender fees. As time went on, fees spiraled into new areas, such as DNA testing fees, medical examination fees, even jury fees. Today, a weak economy, misplaced faith in the “broken windows” theory of criminology, and lack of regulatory oversight have allowed municipalities to extend this practice into petty criminal violations.

Many areas are now using jail time to coerce poor, mostly minority violators of small infractions into paying up or getting put away. These fines are often for petty misdemeanors or violations, such as truancy fees, driving infractions, public drunkenness or urination, jaywalking, or even bounced checks for government services such as school lunches. Yet these fees are only the beginning, as municipalities tack on additional court fees, payment plan fees, costs, and interest at rates of up to 12%. Small debts spiral into enormous ones, and nonpayment can result in civil contempt: incarceration. To make matters worse, collection of these debts is often outsourced to private debt collectors, who not only use aggressive tactics but can tack on additional collection fees, creating a never-ending cycle of debt and incarceration. This cycle is not only devastating to the poor and poor communities, but it makes no sense, as people wind up jailed at costs far exceeding their original fines. The result is that the rich may walk away, while the poor must pay or stay.

Existing literature has focused on those incarcerated for serious crimes who emerge from prison with enormous debts. However, most poor people face legal debt without having faced prison or parole, but as a routine municipal fine or fee for local ordinance violations. Part I of this Note explores the origins of legal financial obligations, while Part II explains the shift to this system both as a revenue stream and as a “broken windows” tool for social reform. Part III examines the equal protection and due process limitations on economic sanctions — protections being ignored by municipalities all across the country. Part IV illustrates how the current scheme operates outside the bounds of the Constitution, as a shadow system where violators have no right to counsel, are not asked about their financial ability to pay, and are turned over to private collection companies who concern themselves only with the bottom line. These practices have disastrous effects on poor communities, particularly communities of color, and the collateral consequences are discussed in Part V. I address several alternatives to this system and avenues for legal reform, as well as obstacles to such reform, in Part VI.

2 Baltimore Related Articles in The Atlantic

1. Conor Friedersdorf, The Brutality of Police Culture in Baltimore, The Atlantic, Apr. 22, 2015.

2. Ta-nehisi Coates, Nonviolence as Compliance, The Atlantic, Apr. 27, 2015.

(And for ongoing coverage: Baltimore City Paper’s link is here, http://www.citypaper.com/).

UPDATE News Article and Response Letters to the Editor: “Skip Child Support. Go to Jail. Lose Job. Repeat” – NYTimes.com

Skip Child Support. Go to Jail. Lose Job. Repeat. – NYTimes.com.

And here are some response letters to the editor, including one by Ann Cammett, whose work undoubtedly came to the mind of law prof readers of the Times’ article.  =)

Ferguson DOJ Reports

Here, at the bottom of the page and links below as well.

Harv. L. Rev. Recent Legislation: “H.B. 14-1061, 69th Gen. Assemb., 2d Reg. Sess. (Colo. 2014) Colorado Requires On-the-Record Indigency Proceedings Prior to Incarceration for Failure to Pay Fines”

Harv. L. Rev. Recent Legislation: H.B. 14-1061, 69th Gen. Assemb., 2d Reg. Sess. (Colo. 2014) Colorado Requires On-the-Record Indigency Proceedings Prior to Incarceration for Failure to Pay Fines, 128 Harv. L. Rev. 1312 (2015).

New Report: “California’s New Vagrancy Laws: The Growing Enactment and Enforcement of Anti-Homeless Laws in the Golden State”

Berkley ReportNew Report: Marina Fisher, Nathaniel Miller, Lindsay Walter &Jeffrey Selbin, California’s New Vagrancy Laws: The Growing Enactment and Enforcement of Anti-Homeless Laws in the Golden State (2015).  Abstract below:

Vagrancy laws conjure up a distant past when authorities punished people without a home or permanent residence. Whether the objects of pity or scorn, vagrants could be cited or jailed under laws selectively enforced against anyone deemed undesirable. Although such laws have generally been struck down by courts as unconstitutionally vague, today’s “vagrants” are homeless people, who face growing harassment and punishment for their presence in public.

More than one in five homeless people in the country lives in California, and two-thirds are unsheltered. The state legislature has done little to respond to this widespread problem, forcing municipal governments to address homelessness with local laws and resources. Cities have responded by enacting and enforcing new vagrancy laws — a wide range of municipal codes that target or disproportionately impact homeless people.

Through extensive archival research and case studies of several cities, the report presents detailed evidence of the growing enactment and enforcement of municipal anti-homeless laws in recent decades as cities engage in a race to the bottom to push out homeless people. It concludes with a call for a state-level solution to end the expensive and inhumane treatment of some of California’s most vulnerable residents.

New Report: “When Discretion Means Denial: A National Perspective on Criminal Records Barriers to Federally Subsidized Housing”

New Report: Marie Claire Tran-Leung, When Discretion Means Denial: A National Perspective on Criminal Records Barriers to Federally Subsidized Housing (Shriver Center 2015).

News Article: Jails Have Become Warehouses for the Poor, Ill and Addicted, a Report Says – NYTimes.com

Jails Have Become Warehouses for the Poor, Ill and Addicted, a Report Says – NYTimes.com.

New Article: ““Continually Reminded of Their Inferior Position”: Social Dominance, Implicit Bias, Criminality, and Race”

New Article: Darren Lenard Hutchinson, “Continually Reminded of Their Inferior Position”: Social Dominance, Implicit Bias, Criminality, and Race, 46 Wash. U. J.L. & Pol’y 23 (2014).  Abstract below:

This Article contends that implicit bias theory has improved contemporary understanding of the dynamics of individual bias. Implicit bias research has also helped to explain the persistent racial disparities in many areas of public policy, including criminal law and enforcement. Implicit bias theory, however, does not provide the foundation for a comprehensive analysis of racial inequality. Even if implicit racial biases exist pervasively, these biases alone do not explain broad societal tolerance of vast racial inequality. Instead, as social dominance theorists have found, a strong desire among powerful classes to preserve the benefits they receive from stratification leads to collective acceptance of group-based inequality. Because racial inequality within criminal law and enforcement reinforces the vulnerability of persons of color and replicates historical injuries caused by explicitly racist practices, legal theorists whose work analyzes the intersection of criminality and racial subordination could find that social dominance theory allows for a rich discussion of these issues.

New Report: “The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Root of its Troubles”

New Report: Richard Rothstein, The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Root of its Troubles (Economic Policy Institute 2014).