Category Archives: Criminalization of Poverty

News Coverage: How mass incarceration creates ‘million dollar blocks’ in poor neighborhoods – The Washington Post

How mass incarceration creates ‘million dollar blocks’ in poor neighborhoods – The Washington Post.

New Article: “Setting the Stage for Ferguson: Housing Discrimination and Segregation in St. Louis”

New Article: Rigel Christine Oliveri, Setting the Stage for Ferguson: Housing Discrimination and Segregation in St. Louis, Missouri L. Rev. forthcoming.  SSRN 2015.  Abstract below:

The events of fall 2014 in Ferguson, MO (the shooting death of Michael Brown by a white police officer and the subsequent protests and riots), have been examined from many angles – the policing of minority communities, the militarized police response to peaceful protests, the poor schools and job prospects for young people like Mr. Brown, etc… This paper adds another factor to the analysis: housing discrimination.

St. Louis is one of the most segregated places in the country and this is not an accident. The history of St. Louis is replete with discriminatory housing laws, policies, and practices. While these were common throughout the United States, they were particularly egregious, widespread, and pervasive in industrial mid-western cities like St. Louis. St. Louis, in fact, was where three of fair housing law’s most foundational fair housing cases emerged from: Shelly v. Kraemer, which held that racially restrictive covenants could not be enforced by courts; Jones v. Mayer, which held that private acts of race discrimination in housing were prohibited by the Civil Rights Act; and United States v. City of Black Jack, which recognized the use of disparate impact theory in fair housing cases. When we look closely at these cases – not just the legal principles that they established but the physical, racial geography of the homes, neighborhoods, and cities that were contested – we can see how they reflected the racist forces that shaped the reality of modern metropolitan St. Louis.

This paper traces the history of housing discrimination in the St. Louis metro area using these cases as a framework, concluding with a discussion of how these historical forces resonate in contemporary Ferguson. The paper concludes with suggestions for reforms that might help undo what a century’s worth of officially sanctioned discrimination and segregation have wrought.

New Article: “Punishing the Poorest: How the Criminalization of Homelessness Perpetuates Poverty in San Francisco”

New Article: Chris Herring & Dilara Yarbrough, Punishing the Poorest: How the Criminalization of Homelessness Perpetuates Poverty in San Francisco, SSRN June 2015.  Abstract below:

This report details the effects of criminalization on the homeless residents of San Francisco. Since 1981, San Francisco has passed more local measures to criminalize sleeping, sitting, or panhandling in public spaces than any other city in the state of California. During this same period, the United States has experienced the greatest expansion of its jail and prison system under any democracy in history. This expansion has primarily affected the poorest members of this society. This report documents and analyzes the impacts of the rising tide of anti-homeless laws in our era of mass incarceration on those experiencing homelessness in San Francisco.

This portrait of the impact of criminalization on homelessness in San Francisco is based on a citywide survey of 351 homeless individuals and 43 in-depth interviews carried out by volunteers at the Coalition on Homelessness and supervised by researchers at the UC Berkeley Center on Human Rights. It also analyzes data on policy, citations, and arrests received from the San Francisco Police Department, the Sheriff ’s Office, the Human Services Agency, and the Recreation and Park Department. The report provides an in-depth analysis of each step in the criminalization of homelessness — from interactions with law enforcement, to the issuance and processing of citations, to incarceration and release. The study makes evident how criminalization not only fails to reduce homelessness in public space, but also perpetuates homelessness, racial and gender inequality, and poverty even once one has exited homelessness.

The aim of this study is to provide sound empirical data on the impacts of the criminalization of homelessness in San Francisco, while also giving voice to the experiences of those whose housing status results in their regularly being processed through the city’s criminal justice system. Our hope is that these findings will inform public discussions and provide the basis for thoughtful policy approaches to these issues.

New Article: “Gideon’s Servants and the Criminalization of Poverty”

New Article: Alexandra Natapoff, Gideon’s Servants and the Criminalization of Poverty, 12 Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, Vol. 445 (2015).  Abstract below:

In ways that slip beneath the doctrinal radar, public defenders often behave like social workers. They find drug treatment and jobs for their clients, and intervene with landlords and employers. Conversely — and ironically — many civil welfare service providers act increasingly like law enforcement officials. Teachers call the police on their students, while welfare case workers often refer their clients for prosecution. This role-switching — by criminal lawyers and civil servants alike — is a function of the tight connection between criminalization and poverty: poor people tend to get swept up in the criminal system and such encounters tend to make people poor. This nexus is particularly powerful in the world of minor offenses and urban policing in which crime, unemployment, racial segregation, and lack of social infrastructure swirl around in one large, nearly inextricable mass. As a result, criminal justice actors are heavily preoccupied with defendants’ social welfare even as the welfare state routinely treats its clients as presumptive criminals. These hydraulic forces affect every official actor — from police officers to prosecutors to emergency room nurses and public school teachers. But public defenders play a special role. Their multi-faceted service commitments to both criminal and welfarist outcomes reveal deep features of the criminal system itself and its conflicted governance relationship to its most vulnerable constituents.

News Coverage: “Jailed for Being Broke”

News Coverage: Matt Taibbi, “Jailed for Being Broke,” Rolling Stone Mag., June 23, 2015.

New Report: “The Poor Get Prison: The Alarming Spread of the Criminalization of Poverty”

IPS-The-Poor-Get-Prison-Cover-309x400New Report: Karen Dolan & Jodi L. Carr, The Poor Get Prison: The Alarming Spread of the Criminalization of Poverty (Inst. for Pol’y Stud. 2015).

Four New Reports from Seattle University School of Law’s Homeless Rights Advocacy Project

Olson, Justin and MacDonald, Scott, Washington’s War on the Visibly Poor: A Survey of Criminalizing Ordinances & Their Enforcement (May 6, 2015). Available at SSRN:

Howard, Joshua and Tran, David, At What Cost: The Minimum Cost of Criminalizing Homelessness in Seattle and Spokane (May 6, 2015). Available at SSRN:

Lurie, Kaya and Schuster, Breanne, Discrimination at the Margins: The Intersectionality of Homelessness And Other Marginalized Groups (May 6, 2015). Available at SSRN:

Ortiz, Javier and Dick, Matthew, The Wrong Side of History: A Comparison of Modern and Historical Criminalization Laws (May 6, 2015). Available at SSRN:

-Congrats to Sara Rankin and her students for this work!  =)

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,

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

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

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.  =)