The Democracy Series: Criminalization of the Poor

In 2018, the Census recorded that 38.1 million people are facing obstacles that keep them living in poverty. Around 10 million of those people are in rural areas.

Many of us are familiar with the sinking feeling of missing a check or otherwise being tight on money. Even now, the pandemic continues to escalate the struggles of our neighbors, families, and friends. However, there’s another hidden risk to increasing poverty in our communities- the criminalization of poor people.

Even while incarcerated, people can be subject to all kinds of fees. From fees associated with public defenders, to room and board, to phone calls to loved ones, for-profit incarceration facilities can and do charge for any and every thing. This creates a financial burden for for those who have been incarcerated as well as for their families.

Criminalization also affects a person’s ability to find adequate housing. Formerly incarcerated people are ten times more likely to experience homelessness. Part of that is because property owners are allowed to determine their own criteria for screening applicants. For a person trying to get back on their feet credit checks, criminal checks, professional references, application fees, and high security deposits all serve as barriers to finding safe and healthy shelter. As a foundational piece of re-entry into society, lack of shelter makes it almost impossible for people to break out of the cycle of criminalization and poverty.

Making matters worse, homelessness itself is often criminalized. Lack of shelter isn’t something that people seek out on purpose, but people experiencing housing insecurity are victims to our justice system all the same. Charges of vagrancy, loitering, and encampment charges can lead to ticketing, fines, and arrest. Research suggests that up to 15% of incarcerated people experience homelessness in the year before admission to prison. That tells us that the cycle of homelessness and criminalization are inextricably linked. 

What can we do about this?

As members of our communities, it’s important for us to know and recognize the systems in place that contribute to the criminalization of poor folks. On both a state and local level, for-profit detention centers provide a financial benefit to the government by being a money-collection machine. Local incarceration facilities also use for-profit probation providers to collect unpaid fines and fees from folks who couldn’t afford them in the first place. 

Freedom can’t truly exist if folks are still stuck in financial servitude long after their sentence is over. Here are some policies that you can advocate for today:

  • Elimination of cash bail is a step that many experts have identified as a positive step towards making the system fairer for poor and low-income folks, as they’re more likely to be stuck in jail awaiting trial.
  • Local reforms to eliminate incarceration and jailing for civil penalties and fines would prevent people from being jailed due to these fines that are predatory and unjust in nature.
  • Calling for a cap on criminal fines and penalties would do more to keep folks from being incarcerated just because they can’t afford them.
  • Banning for-profit probation that often utilizes aggressive scare tactics and inflates the fees and fines that people are burdened with post-incarceration.
  • Enact a Housing Bill of Rights to ensure that people who do not have safe housing are not penalized or criminalized for it. 
Interested in getting involved with Down Home's Stop Criminalizing the Poor working groups?

Currently in Haywood County, NC, Down Home members are challenging the proposed $16.5 million jail expansion! The people of Haywood County need support, not jail! 

85% of Haywood’s jail is comprised of people who meet the standard of substance use disorder. Before sinking $16.5 million into a new jail, alternatives should be considered and data about incarceration drivers should be thoroughly evaluated. Want to get involved in this campaign? Send Down Home Haywood an email here.

Our Down Home Alamance members are working hard RIGHT NOW to get people out of the Alamance County Jail during another COVID-19 outbreak in the facility. Can you help us post bail for poor folks stuck inside? Whether it is $5 or $100, every gift goes towards helping secure someone’s freedom.

Down Home members in Cabarrus County are trying to learn more about our neighbor’s experiences with bail and incarceration in the county. Do you live in Cabarrus and have five minutes to spare? Take the survey now!