Not A Crime to Be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America

Edelman, Peter
New York : The New Press
Year Published: 
Subject Term(s): 
Culture & Society

Most Americans believe debtors' prisons are a thing of the past. Yet today, people are in jail by the thousands for no other reason than that they are poor. As the Justice Department found when it investigated police practices in Ferguson, Missouri, massive fines and fees are levied for minor crimes such as broken taillights and rolling through stop signs, and when the poor cannot pay, the result is an epidemic of repeated stays in jail. Bail is routinely set without consideration of a defendant's ability to pay, resulting in one kind of justice system for those who can buy their way out and another harshly punitive one for those who can't. In Not a Crime to Be Poor, Georgetown law professor Peter Edelman argues that Ferguson is everywhere in America today. Through money bail systems, fees and fines, drivers license suspensions by the millions, strictly enforced laws against behavior including vagrancy and public urination that largely affect the homeless, and the substitution of prisons and jails for the mental hospitals that have traditionally served the impoverished, one of the richest countries on Earth has effectively criminalized poverty. Edelman, who famously resigned from the administration of Bill Clinton over welfare "reform," connects the dots between disciplinary policies that disproportionately send African American and Latino schoolchildren to court for minor misbehavior, child support policies that send penniless fathers to jail, public housing rules that bar ex-offenders, the eviction of women who call 911 to get protection against domestic violence, and the threat of fraud charges against public benefit recipients to paint a picture of a mean-spirited system that turns daily struggles into inescapable poverty. Tracing this trend back to the so-called tax revolution when voters insisted that politicians cut taxes drastically, forcing cities and states to look to alternative ways of raising money, Edelman shows that we still live in a country where, to our great shame, it is a crime to be poor.