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‘Blueprint for a Safer and More Just America,’ Principle 1: Stop Criminalizing Poverty

Special Edition

This week, the Daily Appeal will be delving into the Justice Collaborative’s “Blueprint for a Safer and More Justice America.” We will focus each day on one of the core principles and highlight examples of promising practices from across the country that help further its goals.

‘Blueprint for a Safer and More Just America,’ Principle 1: Stop Criminalizing Poverty

“For all the energy behind reform” of the criminal legal system, “no presidential candidate has articulated a big, comprehensive vision for transformational change,” Emily Bazelon wrote in a New York Times op-ed last week. “There’s a consensus that the system is broken, but no agreement on how to fix it.” She pointed to various sources for ideas about how to fix it, including a “comprehensive new blueprint for reform” issued by the Justice Collaborative.

The Justice Collaborative’s “Blueprint For A Safer And More Just America” is an effort to transform the criminal legal landscape by applying common sense, human dignity, and fairness across the system. Today we look at the first principle of the blueprint: 

Stop making poverty into a crime.

No person in America should be locked up because they are too poor. But right now we have homeless people arrested for sleeping outside; parents who can’t afford to purchase their release from jail; and people who cycle in and out of jail because they can’t afford to pay old fines even as new ones pile on. Worse yet, we have corporations making billions of dollars on the backs of our poorest communities. From bail bondsmen to private probation companies, people are getting rich off suffering and incarceration. Even cities and counties fill their coffers from the fines and fees that are imposed upon people who are struggling just to survive. We need a criminal justice system that puts people over profit, and that helps to make vulnerable people more stable, not less stable.

  1. End money bail and drastically reduce the pretrial jail population in America.

  1. End all fees associated with any diversion, treatment, or community supervision program. All costs should be borne by the government.

  1. End all court fees, public defender fees, and other costs that ask poor people to subsidize the criminal justice system.

  1. Stop imposing incarceration due to an inability to pay fines or fees.

  1. Make phone calls free for all people who are incarcerated in jails and prisons in America.

  1. Prohibit the criminalization of behavior that stems from extreme poverty, including sitting or sleeping in parks or on sidewalks and benches.

Bail: “Ending cash bail should be at the top of every candidate’s criminal justice agenda. So should getting rid of fines and fees that help fund local governments but trap people in cycles of debt,” writes Bazelon. Ferguson, Missouri, “became a symbol of the criminalization of poverty for routinely sending black defendants to jail for failing to pay minor traffic fines.” But last November, a reformer district attorney was elected. On his first day in office, Wesley Bell “announced one of the most progressive bail policies in the country—pretrial release, without bail, for misdemeanors and some felonies, unless the prosecutor thinks there is a direct threat to public safety.” He also pledged not to seek to revoke probation for unpaid fines and fees. “As an overriding principle, I do not believe in prosecuting poverty,” he told a local paper. [Emily Bazelon / New York Times]

Child support: Bell went beyond the bail reform and adopted less popular but equally crucial stances, including a policy that his office “will not criminally prosecute the failure to pay child support.” Bell pointed out that the criminalization of nonpayment can make it even harder for parents under a child support order to make payments. “When you have two people applying for a job who are similarly situated, and one has a felony conviction even if it’s just for child support, we’d be lying if we said that didn’t hurt people’s chances of being successful at getting a job,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Nor does it help custodial parents. “They don’t want the noncustodial parent to go to jail. They just want the support,” he said. [Christine Byers / St. Louis Post-Dispatch]

Protections for homeless people: For 20 years in Miami, the Pottinger Agreement, “a landmark legal decree” established “protections for Miami’s homeless population from undue police harassment,” wrote Joey Flechas for the Miami Herald. It prevented Miami police from arresting homeless people “for loitering and other ‘life-sustaining’ activities, including sleeping on the sidewalk and urinating in public.” But this year, U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno decided that court oversight and specific protections were no longer needed because of increased social services, and tossed the agreement. [Joey Flechas / Miami Herald] There is no reason other cities can’t do both: increase social services and prevent homeless people from police harassment.

Access to public transit: In New York City, as broken windows policing strategies are increasingly discredited, many people have opposed aggressive arrests of turnstile jumpers in New York subways, which they say largely punish poor people and people of color. In 2017, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said he would no longer prosecute most fare evasion charges, though racial disparities persist. [Anna Flagg and Ashley Nerbovig / Marshall Project] And last year, the NYPD announced that cops will no longer arrest people for fare evasion, even if they have summons warrants on their record. Instead, they will issue summonses to appear in court at a later date. [Rocco Parascandola / New York Daily News] Those summonses, however, still carry fines and the potential to give a person a criminal record. A better model would be Washington D.C., which last year passed a measure “decriminalizing Metro fare evasion, paving the way for fare-jumping to become a civil offense” punishable by a $50 fine, the Washington Post reported. Best of all would be making public transit affordable for all.

Driver’s licenses: In an effort to help thousands of people regain driver’s licenses, the district attorney of Durham, North Carolina, is clearing thousands of traffic cases and working with other officials to clear thousands of fines and fees. Right now, more than 1.2 million North Carolinians’ licenses are revoked for various nondriving reasons, such as an inability to pay court fines and fines. The revocations can lead to significant hardships by hindering access to housing and employment. [Daniel Nichanian / The Appeal: Political Report] See also Last week, the Virginia legislature passed a bill to stop the suspensions of driver’s licenses over unpaid fines and fees.

Phone calls from jail: Last year, New York’s City became the first major city in the country to allow people in its jails to use the phones for free. Until the new law passed, both the city and a private contractor charged steep fees for every minute of talking by phone to friends, family, and attorneys. This nets $8 million a year, $5 million of which goes to the city. The law came as the billion-dollar prison phone industry drew increased scrutiny. “Unfortunately, the city has been profiting from some of our most vulnerable New Yorkers for years, and that is going to stop,” said Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker and sponsor of the bill. “Families and friends of incarcerated individuals should not have to choose between hearing from their loved ones and paying their bills.” [Erin Durkin / New York Daily News] Connecticut may soon be the first state in the nation to follow New York City. In addition to making phone calls free, a pending bill stipulates that if Connecticut implements video conferencing for prisoners in the future, those communications will be free of charge, too. The bill also promises that Connecticut will not limit in-person visitation. (The Prison Policy Initiative estimates that 74 percent of U.S. correctional facilities have reduced or eliminated in-person visitation since implementing video conferencing.) [Rachel M. Cohen / The Intercept]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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