The Poor Get Prison: The Alarming Spread of the Criminalization of Poverty

The Poor Get Prison Report Cover

Poor people, especially people of color, face a far greater risk of being fined, arrested, and even incarcerated for minor offenses than other Americans. A broken taillight, an unpaid parking ticket, a minor drug offense, sitting on a sidewalk, or sleeping in a park can all result in jail time. In this report, we seek to understand the multi-faceted, growing phenomenon of the “criminalization of poverty.”

In many ways, this phenomenon is not new: The introduction of public assistance programs gave rise to prejudices against beneficiaries and to systemic efforts to obstruct access to the assistance.

This form of criminalizing poverty — racial profiling or the targeting of poor black and Latina single mothers trying to access public assistance — is a relatively familiar reality. Less well-known known are the new and growing trends which increase this criminalization of being poor that affect or will affect hundreds of millions of Americans. These troubling trends are eliminating their chances to get out of poverty and access resources that make a safe and decent life possible.

In this report we will summarize these realities, filling out the true breadth and depth of this national crisis. The key elements we examine are:

  • the targeting of poor people with fines and fees for misdemeanors, and the resurgence of debtors’ prisons – the imprisonment of people unable to pay debts resulting from the increase in fines and fees;
  • mass incarceration of poor ethnic minorities for non-violent offenses, and the barriers to employment and re-entry into society once they have served their sentences;
  • excessive punishment of poor children that creates a “school-to-prison pipeline”;
  • increase in arrests of homeless people and people feeding the homeless, and criminalizing life-sustaining activities such as sleeping in public when no shelter is available; and
  • confiscating what little resources and property poor people might have through “civil asset forfeiture.”

Read the full report [PDF].

Karen Dolan is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and directs the Criminalization of Poverty Project. Karen also assists the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

  • J_ABRO

    I was hanging out recently with a friend who happens to be Black. We were just swapping stories, mostly for laughs. Then he told me that he’s spent ‘more than a littler while’ of his life in jail. I was surprised and not surprised — because he’s one of the nicest guys I know but, like I said, he’s Black. I won’t go into the details of what he told me, but if any white person I know did the same things when they were young, they would not have gone to jail ‘for a little while’.

  • shelley

    Maybe it’s because I am Caucasian and live in Colorado, but I grow so weary of hearing these problems refered to as problems of minorities and people of color. I can tell you for a fact that the war on the poor effects a huge number of white people as well. It is not just a Jim Crow problem. Where I live the majority of the poor are white. The majority of those arrested for petty drug crimes are overwhelmingly white. The people in the waiting room at the Housing Authority and at Human Services are mostly white. It is a societal problem in which the have nots are ground into the dirt by the system. There is a real war on the poor in general, not just on people of color. And I feel like America needs to embrace these injustices as problems that potentially effect us all, not just minorities.

    • Rdzkz

      But the whites still keep voting this to themselves- the Romney&Ryan stickers on decraptitated old pickups, ‘yea, Romneys for freedom, no collectivism’ in the standard deep-viagra-voice.

      • ncfnorcalrep8

        No, the biggest shift in Criminalizing the poor came under the Democrats with Bill Clinton. In 1996 there were a number of bill’s signed into law by then President Clinton that began the process of destroying the social safety net. The first major one being the Welfare Reform Act which was the death knell to all the social safety net from that point on which began the punitive treatment of women and children. Another was the precursor to the Patriot Act called The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. This helped to create and allow the use of “detention” by authorities without due process. The Crime Bill of 1996 amending the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 just added insult to injury.
        The problem with the vast majority of people in this Country is that they don’t vote. And the few that do vote are not poor and fail to see the 2 parties as one and the same–completely in the pockets of corporations. The Democrat’s are just very good at obfuscating the truth and use phrases like “I feel your pain”–all the while making their deals with the devil.

        • rdzk

          Agreed, with his big seg he killed people. Killary is next.

        • guy

          “The problem with the vast majority of people in this Country is that they don’t vote. And the few that do vote are not poor and fail to see the 2 parties as one and the same–completely in the pockets of corporations.”

          Are you saying the problem is that people don’t vote and that who you vote for makes no different in two sentences one after another?

        • mary

          Both chambers had Republican majorities for the first time since the 1950s. Major events included passage of elements of the Contract with America and a budget impasse between Congress and the Clinton Administration that resulted in the Federal government shutdown of 1995 and 1996. Go ahead, keep blaming President Clinton.

          • ncfnorcalrep8

            In 1992 then presidential candidate Clinton ran on the platform to “end Welfare as we know it”, and according to both Weaver and Haskins, Clinton was “unwilling” to do anything but pass the Welfare bill especially facing re-election that year. And most of the Dems voted for it.
            Also, I would like to add NAFTA was also pushed under Clinton (passed and signed when there was a Dems majority) which also contributed to the “criminalization” of the poor. It was the beginning of the “race to the bottom”, an end for high paying manufacturing jobs in this country, especially in the Midwest, pushing poor Central and South Americans northward, pushing wages down for both north and south workers, etc. etc. etc.

          • Marion1

            Sounds like the 30’s…and 60’s….Go back a little further.

        • Marion1

          It started with Reagan…Backdoor Prohibition.

        • Ruth1940

          The war on drugs was the single worst thing – started under Nixon and enhanced under Reagan. The ads then showed people on welfare and drugs as black, even though most people on welfare are white and drug use rate varies little by race. See the graph:

      • Marion1

        It has nothing to do with the president or congress, really. It’s the judicial system that is the instigator and are overwhelmingly implemented at the county/city level, not state/federal. I can’t seem to find a source where it says persons other than congress have the authority to make law, not “city council.”

        • ncfnorcalrep8

          It has everything to do with all three branches of government but the main body is the legislature. They create the laws and regulations, the POTUS signs them into law. The judicial system had nothing to do with millions of women being kicked off of AFDC and its dissolution—nor with any of the acts passed by Congress and the President. Yes, the judicial system is what a poor or low income person sees on the other end when they can’t “live” on the edge any longer and end up driving without a license or doing something wrong because they have nothing to cover rent, food, or childcare. I know, because I was one of those mothers since 1980.
          I wasn’t discounting Reagan but if you re-read my post I used the phrase ” the biggest shift” in criminalizing the poor came under the Dems and Clinton. And yes, what we are entering now is another 1920’s and 30’s (which came out of a decades long build up of slave labor from all sectors not just blacks, in the 1800’s) but on a global scale this time with multi-national corporations all over the world literally choking all of us. I would like to suggest reading Howard Zinn’s book “The People’s History of the United States” it’s very easy to read and you can pick it up at any chapter.

          • Marion1

            I have a degree in U.S. History, specifically the Colonial Era through Prohibition and teach it, so I do not need to read someone’s uniformed opinion. Vagrancy laws are ordinances, not laws…Period. They are enacted at county level, which is illegal. The Highway Patrols, are county level officers and are the former Slave Patrol. The article specifically states “local government” needs to stop criminalizing”…There is no legal entity known as “local government,” but people are so ignorant they let it stand. Most are private corporations out of the state’s regulation. That’s why they get away with so much.

          • ncfnorcalrep8

            I don’t know what I did to offend you- I thought we were having a discussion not a competition. I do not think Howard Zinn’s work is uniformed, as he too was a professor of History, came from working class (dock worker) and was a bomber in WWII. When one studies History, there are the facts/dates but there is always opinion on the interpretation and perception of those facts.
            As in news reporting–I have never come across any reporting that has been “objective” –it is always colored by the reporter’s perception even subconsciously. And if you would look closely at my previous posts, I was not responding to the article, but to the individual’s comments.
            But to correct some of your other statements, The Highway Patrol (at least in California, is a State regulated entity. At the County level of government you have the Sheriff’s office. The top/chief “Sheriff” is elected by voters. (Some other states may have someone just appointment the Sheriff. ) The rest are deputies and you have the County District Attorneys. And I am not sure what you mean by there is no “local government” as your local government is the City Council (or alderman), the Mayor, the City Attorney, and the public works, etc. dept. These are our local officials, most of whom are elected by the citizens of that City (i.e. locality). Local municipalities have laws called “ordinances” that are enacted by the City Councils/Mayor. A lot of times these are unconstitutional as are a lot of law these days–and it takes a lot of fighting to try and get them over turned. (i.e. like sleeping or eating in ones car as long as you are not breaking any other vehicle laws).

            If your intent by saying these entities do not exist is that you mean private corporations are taking over these civil positions then you are correct.

            That is what is happening. Our elected government officials, be they local (city), country, state or federal are contracting out to private companies for what should be government run services employing people from the area where they live and where “the people” have a voice, since it is our government. Yes, it is wrong and horrific when the city, county and state jails/prisons are now run by big money. But all of our “elected officials” are the ones who set this in motion. The people’s government has been “co-opted” . If that is what your point was then it was well taken.

          • Marion1

            I’m not offended and agreed with some of your statements. The Federal/State Constitutions stipulate only two government bodies: Federal and State… and neither can delegate it’s authority as SCOTUS ruled in 1933 that delegation of government authority is unconstitutional as there are no other levels permitted. You may be confusing your State Police with the Highway Patrol. The U.S. Constitution designates that the “Navigable Waters shall be the “Public Highways” and never has included roads, which we had when it was written, so what people are told are “Highways” are legally defined as “Interstates,” which are exclusively federal jurisdiction under U.S. Title 49 regulating Interstate Commerce and a state cannot enter that domain. Therefore, states only administer the federal law, which is to “Regulate and Enforce Federal Laws governing Commercial Motor Vehicles (CDL’s).” Given the Federal Law concludes an “Interstate” does not go straight to Walmart’s loading dock, it includes all secondary roads connected to interstates. So, if you are not subject to Interstate Commerce regulations, what law governs non-commercial drivers?….None. Title 49 specifically exempts them from regulation. See, they allow county/city’s to dupe folks, because it’s one of the largest revenue sources. Our city/county’s can appoint Public Safety code enforcers who are allowed to utilize blue lights, but are not law enforcement. They do buildings, grass, nuisances, litter etc. Ever noticed your police utilize two different vehicles that look somewhat alike?

          • ncfnorcalrep8

            I think we’re getting away a bit from the intent of this article so I am going to stop. You’ve made a lot of claims in this last post without any references or citations as to their veracity and I don’t have time to check them. But I don’t think I am confused about the terms State Police versus Highway Patrol. “In many states, the state police are known by different names: the
            various terms used are “State Police”, “Highway Patrol”, “State Highway
            Patrol”, “State Patrol”, and “State Troopers”. However, the
            jurisdictions and functions of these agencies are usually the same,
            regardless of title.”

          • Marion1

            Given most non-violent charges, even shop lifting are now issued on a Traffic Citation, I disagree. Human TRAFFICKING (Slavery) is not limited to the few examples usually associated with the term given the Highway Patrol is the former Slave Patrol. My sources are clear…The Law. It is your duty and responsibility as a citizen to read it.

    • Marion1

      It’s because you are correct. ….I intend to make it an issue, because many middle class people of all races are being target. I’m one of them and it’s not a coincidence.

    • Ruth1940

      Much, but not all of the racial disparity is because the racial minorities are also disproportionately poor (having been intentionally kept there with institutional conditions). Poor and minorities were also targeted during prohibition of alcohol (the law even set up to result in that). With increasing privatization of prisons, keeping them full is a goal and it’s easier to convict the poor.

  • Metompkin

    The basis of this war is the Republican anti-tax platform. Republican legislatures and governors cut taxes. Because they have cut taxes, there is no longer any money to pay for basic services. To recover the lost money we see the development of a plethora of mechanisms, such as doubling or tripling traffic fines, allowing obscene penalties of 50-100% on late payments, raising license and permit fees and arbitrary (targeted in the case of Ferguson) enforcement of minor laws to raise money for the municipality.

    All the while we see Republican politicians brag about the false canard of “cutting taxes”.

    They haven’t cut taxes – they have just transferred the burden onto the poor and middle class.

    Criminalizing the poor is also a method of voter suppression.

    • Marion1

      What you and others are not comprehending is this has nothing to do with any federal or state level officials. These are vagrancy laws implemented at county/city level which have no constitutional basis. The problem is the judiciary and the private corporations that fund them. Do you not understand it is independent of the government? These aren’t federal or state laws and the president or congress has nothing to do with it. They have no oversight or control over county/city “governments.” Yeah, they tell us they are state laws, but they are not.

  • Rdzkz

    This done to rid of the outsourced-joblless–hell, they deserve it, they did not want to move toChina when the B$CEOs wanted.

  • shelley

    I would like to add to my previous comment that I do see that nationally minorities and people of color do bare the brunt of incarcerations and school to prison arrests, and that I do the this as a s a national disgrace. I found this report to be an excellent assessment of a huge problem we in the lower income bracket have been aware of for some time, and my hopes are that this report helps foster change. The problem is very entangled in the çriminal system at every level and it will take a lot of change to remedy. I just hope the will is there. This report was a wonderful beginning and I applaud the author.

  • Christopher Thompson

    still enslaving the HEBREW people of GOD this is why I am LAZARUS.

    • Ruth1940

      Where are the Hebrew people being enslaved?

  • TellMeImDreaming

    And the socio/psychopaths in the GOP are leading the charge….

  • Nicko Thime

    An America Charles Dickens would recognize and be appalled by. His father was imprisoned at Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison.

  • DC

    Great article and PDF for files.
    Moving poor people into the justice system is also a good way to ‘encourage them into social services’… there’s lots of money to be made in poverty whether your service is through a government agency (overworked and underfunded) or a nonprofit (potential funding from up and coming Social Investment bonds – SIBs). This movement of the poor into jails or human services avoids having to tackle the economic and social structural problems that cause poverty and homelessness. We don’t have to regulate banking and finance anymore, we regulate the citizenry…

    • Marion1

      Exactly…Economic Controls. That’s why they give them access to bank accounts.