Criminalizing Poverty Directly: How debt fuels mass incarceration

Walter Scott and his children, courtesy of The Guardian

Walter Scott’s tragic death in South Carolina this last week has brought attention to a troubling reality: in South Carolina, 1 in 8 people in jail are there because they couldn’t meet their child support obligations. Because this is a civil, not a criminal, offense, this means that at least 12.5% of incarcerated people in South Carolina aren’t there because of a crime, but (almost always) because of their poverty. It also means that people are jailed without a right to counsel.

In Scott’s case, it’s widely speculated that he was running from the police officer because there was a warrant out for his arrest due to the thousands he owed in child support. He served six months in jail and several other overnight stays for falling far behind previously.

South Carolina has particularly harsh penalties in this regard: a civil contempt hearing can be triggered when payments are just five days late. And although they’re cracking down in this especially punitive way, their compliance rate is actually below the national average. This may reflect the fact that people who are in and out of jail have a harder time holding down a steady job, are less likely to be given a new one, and are further behind in both child support payments and other trivial financial concerns such as rent and utility payments. (The relationship between incarceration and poverty is so well recognized, one of the Koch brothers wrote an article about it.)

Don’t get me wrong – I’m fully in support of the general concept of child support. But jailing people to enforce compliance is both counterproductive and legally questionable. When someone can’t pay child support and ends up being jailed for it, we’re effectively putting them in an (illegal) debtor’s prison. This idea has been under attack in both popular media and in the courts recently, partly as a result of activism in Ferguson and the #blacklivesmatter campaign nationwide. The DOJ report documenting civil rights abuses in Ferguson highlighted the abusive use of municipal fines, applied and enforced disproportionately against people of color.

According to civil rights lawyer and activist Alec Karakatsanis who has successfully represented clients in debtor’s prison cases in Montgomery, AL, and Ferguson, MO, both the fees and fines imposed on citizens and the system’s willingness to use jail as an enforcement mechanism have risen alongside mass incarceration.

“In the 1970s and 1980s,” he says, “we started to imprison more people for lesser crimes. In the process, we were lowering our standards for what constituted an offense deserving of imprisonment, and, more broadly, we were losing our sense of how serious, how truly serious, it is to incarcerate. If we can imprison for possession of marijuana, why can’t we imprison for not paying back a loan?”

It’s not a novel concept that most people in prison are poor, and the relationship between the underlying offense and poverty is often a close one. But in this case, poverty itself is the offense. As Karakatsanis suggests, we have lost our comprehension of just how devastating incarceration is, and as a result are comfortable resorting to it with alarming frequency when the transgressor in question happens to be poor, or a person of color, or both. We’ve seen this recently in the first-ever conviction for feticide and the application of racketeering charges to schoolteachers.

We need to stop pretending that prison will solve all our problems. It’s an affront to the dignity of the people we’re reflexively locking up, and it doesn’t work. Not mad enough yet? Watch this terrific segment of Last Week Tonight by John Oliver:

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6 thoughts on “Criminalizing Poverty Directly: How debt fuels mass incarceration

  1. Jan Hobbs says:

    Reblogged this on Blissfully Single.

  2. kstreet607 says:

    Reblogged this on The Fifth Column and commented:
    Municipal fines and the victims who pay them…

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