Home > Uncategorized > The Department of Justice is Jailing People for Being Poor… and the Children of Those Nonsensically Imprisoned Suffer as a Result

The Department of Justice is Jailing People for Being Poor… and the Children of Those Nonsensically Imprisoned Suffer as a Result

December 28, 2017

Chiraag Bains, a former senior counsel in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and a senior fellow at Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Policy Program and a fellow with the Open Society Foundations, wrote an op ed article in today’s NYTimes that exemplifies everything that is wrong with our approach to civil rights, crime and punishment, and taxation.

In “Sessions Says to Courts: Go Ahead, Jail People Because They Are Poor”, Mr. Bains describes the Trump administration;s decision to roll back recent guidelines issued by the Department of Justice (DOJ) that precluded the imprisonment of individuals who could not pay fines for arguably penny-ante violations like jaywalking, failure to maintain their properties to community standards, and minor traffic violations. Mr. Bain offered some examples from Ferguson, MO, where this practice was particularly blatant:

Ferguson used its criminal justice system as a for-profit enterprise, extracting millions from its poorest citizens. Internal emails revealed the head of finance directing policing strategy to maximize revenue rather than ensure public safety. Officers told us they were pressured to issue as many tickets as possible.

Even the local judge was in on it, imposing penalties of $302 for jaywalking and $531 for allowing weeds to grow in one’s yard. He issued arrest warrants for residents who fell behind on payments — including a 67-year-old woman who had been fined for a trash-removal violation — without inquiring whether they even had the ability to pay the exorbitant amounts. The arrests resulted in new charges, more fees and the suspension of driver’s licenses. These burdens fell disproportionately on African-Americans.

At the time of our investigation, over 16,000 people had outstanding arrest warrants from Ferguson, a city of 21,000. Untold numbers found themselves perpetually in debt to the city and periodically confined to its jail.

Mr. Bains made a persuasive case for limiting the amount of the fines in places like Ferguson, which he takes great pains to emphasize is NOT an exception but a rule. But Mr. Bain neglected to connect the dots to the root cause of this problem: the unwillingness of legislators in Missouri and other states to create fair and equitable tax structures. The town of Ferguson would not have to use “…its criminal justice system as a for-profit enterprise” if it had a sufficient tax base to provide basic services to its citizens… and if a town like Ferguson lacks the tax base to provide services then those affluent individuals in the State should be asked to pay higher taxes to help their neighbors who, through no choice of their own, reside in tax starved communities. At the very least, the legislators who are enabling towns to use their criminal justice systems to raise  funds in lieu of taxes might consider requiring the creation of community service in lieu of imprisonment. It strikes me that a town could afford to hire some social workers and/or foremen to oversee community service workers for less than it costs to build prisons and hire guards… and those community service providers could help elderly “convicts” with trash removal and cleaning the weeds that overgrow some of the properties.

Mr. Bains also overlooked one other consequence of the periodic imprisonment of those who cannot pay fines. When those who are imprisoned are parents of children, the children suffer… and when the towns are strapped for cash to over costs for day-to-day operations of their community they are inevitably strapped for cash to pay for schools and the social safety net. And who loses when this happens? The children of those raised in poverty. The children who didn’t ask to be born in Ferguson pay the price while the children born into affluence benefit. The vicious cycle of poverty remains in place.

But hiring government social workers would be perceived as “adding a layer of bureaucrats” while hiring prison guards is perceived as “taking action against the criminal element”. And if the prisons are operated by the private sector, as is increasingly the case, the government isn’t involved at all— except to enforce the laws of the land. And if those laws of the land are petty, so be it. And if the laws of the land adversely affect the poor and the black and the brown, it is not a problem in the eyes of the Trump administration and the voters who support them. For me, I am saddened to see the rollbacks to economic and social justice.



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