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]