By Terrell Jermaine Starr
The criminalization of America’s poor has been quietly gaining steam for years, but a recent study, “The Poor Get Prison,” co-authored by Karen Dolan and Jodi L. Carr, reveals the startling extent to which American municipalities are fining and jailing the country’s most vulnerable people, not just punishing them for being poor, but driving them deeper into poverty.
“In the last ten years,” Barbara Ehrenreich writes in the introduction, “it has become apparent that being poor is in itself a crime in many cities and counties, and that it is a crime punished by further impoverishment.”
A few months ago, the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report revealed how that city has disproportionately targeted its majority minority population with traffic and other minor infractions that heavily support the municipality’s coffers. But Ferguson is far from alone. Municipalities like New York City have greatly increased the number of minor offenses that are considered criminal (like putting your feet up in the subway) or sitting on the sidewalk. Wealthy white people in business attire are rarely targeted for such summonses, and if they are, they can quickly pay the fine or hire counsel to get out of it. The over-punishment of minor offenses is just another way the rich get richer, and as the report says, the “poor get prison.” They also get poorer and more numerous. In one striking statistic, the Southern Educational Foundation reports that 51 percent of America’s public schoolchildren are living in poverty.