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Spotlight: Presidential Candidates—Pay Attention to Poverty and All of Its Drivers

The criminal and juvenile legal systems are drivers of poverty. Presidential candidates should recognize that.

The Democratic Party debates begin tonight. Economic justice has been high on the agendas of several candidates and at a recent forum organized by the Poor People’s Campaign, the nine candidates in attendance were pushed to go beyond the concerns of the middle class and look specifically at poverty and its causes, including systemic racism. It will be worth paying attention to whether the causes and consequences of poverty feature in the debates tonight and tomorrow night.

So far there has been little attention given to how systems of policing and punishment penalize poverty and contribute to it. Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative drew attention to the issue this month, writing, “it’s mysterious and frustrating that none of these candidates have proposed to end our justice system’s criminalization of poverty—at least beyond the occasional nod to ending money bail.”

This is despite how many people are affected by the issue. “The incomes of people in U.S. prisons and local jails are overwhelmingly low, and one in two American adults has had an incarcerated close relative, meaning that a candidate who understands the criminalization of poverty could propose transformative reforms and speak to a huge number of voters,” Bertram wrote. “In particular, candidates are missing an opportunity to speak to Black voters, who are hit hardest by policies that punish poor people.”

In April, Emily Bazelon wrote in the New York Times: “For the candidates, thematically, a starting point should be that wealth should not determine a person’s fate in court, and profit should not drive the system. Bail bonds, privatized probation and corporate-run prisons are parasitic features of the justice system. 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.”

Presidential candidates, Bertram wrote, should pledge to better fund the services and systems that keep people from getting arrested and help stabilize people returning home from jail and prison. And they should urge and incentivize states to end criminal and juvenile legal system fees that function as a regressive form of taxation, hinder rehabilitation, and incentivize harmful practices.

There has been movement on these issues at the state and local level, most recently from Nevada, which this month followed California to become the second state in the country to end fees for young people facing juvenile delinquency charges and their families. Across the country, approximately one million young people face juvenile delinquency charges each year. Fines, fees, restitution, and other costs are imposed in nearly every state.

In an article for the Nevada Independent, Denise Tanata, the executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Alliance, and Steve Yeager, the state representative who leads the committee that sponsored the bill to end fees in the juvenile system, noted that Nevada had more than a dozen laws authorizing the state and counties to charge a variety of fees. It is important to note that fees are distinct from fines, restitution, and other legal financial obligations or monetary sanctions. They are imposed not as punishment but as charges for “using” the legal system. The Nevada law leaves fines and restitution, which can also be crippling, in place, and it does not touch financial obligations imposed by the adult criminal legal system.

But the lifting of fees is an important first step. Those fees fell disproportionately on Black youth, who are three times more likely to be arrested and six times more likely to be placed in state facilities. Families that were unable to pay faced harsh measures ranging from collection actions to driver’s license suspensions and even criminal charges.

As is the case nationally, and in the adult criminal legal system as well, the fees undermine rehabilitation and bring counties little in meaningful revenue. Tanata and Yeager wrote that “some state and local officials in Nevada reported spending more on fee collection efforts than they received in total fees from families in their jurisdictions.”

The Children’s Advocacy Alliance worked with the Policy Advocacy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law on research documenting the harms of juvenile administrative fees. The Berkeley clinic also produced a major report on the harms of fees in California before the passage of Senate Bill 190, which abolished all juvenile administrative fees in the state.

Following an analysis by the Policy Advocacy Clinic and the East Bay Community Legal Center, California’s Senate recently passed SB 144. The bill would eliminate nearly all the administrative fees in the adult criminal legal system as well and wipe out billions in debt.

Presidential candidates should pay attention.

Speaking to the New York Times Magazine earlier this year, Mitali Nagrecha of Harvard’s National Criminal Justice Debt Initiative, said: “You think about what we want to define us as Americans: equal opportunity, equal protection under the law. But what we’re seeing in these situations is that not only are the poor in the United States treated differently than people with means, but that the courts are actually aggravating and perpetuating poverty.”

This Spotlight originally appeared in The Daily Appeal newsletter. Subscribe here.