by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Is it illegal to be poor?
That was the question on the table at “The Criminalization of Poverty,” a panel discussion and community forum held on Nov. 13 at Savior Pastoral Center in Kansas City, Kansas.
The event was the third in a series of four that was part of KC Common Good, an initiative of the nonprofit organization American Public Square.
Among the evening’s sponsors was the social justice office of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
“I always tell people that there are two ways to love,” said Bill Scholl, consultant for the social justice office. “The first way to love is mercy, where you help the person in need.
“But the next way is justice, where we look at how we address the needs in the first place: What is causing people to suffer, and how we can organize to stop that suffering? I’m so glad the office of social justice could sponsor this event.”
The four panelists included Jean Peters Baker, prosecutor for Jackson County, Missouri; Jalilah Otto, circuit court judge for Jackson County; Lavanya Madhusudan, a research analyst and policy developer from Seattle; and Wayne Smith, managing attorney of Legal Aid of Western Missouri.
More than 200 people attended the event, and questions were taken from the audience to submit to the panelists.
The first question, a request to define the term “criminalization of policy,” was given to Madhusudan.
“There is no universally accepted definition,” said Madhusudan. “There are two aspects to it. The first is we’re talking about policies, laws and practices that result in consequences for low-income people, often penalties that are unnecessary in many cases without any benefit for these individuals.
“The second component is situations where low-income people are arrested or detained simply because they are poor and cannot afford to comply with various legal financial obligations, even something as simple as paying a traffic ticket or a parking ticket.”
It is, she said, the “criminalization of poverty.”
People of color and impoverished persons have higher rates of encounter with the criminal justice system than other parts of the general population, said Madhusudan. And the consequences of those interactions result in disproportionately higher rates of conviction, longer periods of detention and longer sentences.
Just being arrested — even without a conviction — results in many “collateral consequences” that can severely affect these persons’ lives and limit their participation in society.
Smith has seen the criminalization of policy, and poverty, in his work as a court-appointed legal counsel serving low-income persons. Annually, his office represents 10,000 to 11,000 persons.
“Our clients . . . can’t afford a lawyer and can’t afford to post bond,” Smith said. “They’re not going to be able to pay fines or probation fees. A lot of times we request those fees be waived . . . [and ask that our] clients do community service rather than pay a fine.”
Sometimes, the courts agree to waive fines and court costs because they know the low-income defendants couldn’t possibly pay, and they don’t want to set them up for failure.
Otto has seen the “snowball effect” that can occur when a low-income person encounters the criminal justice system. While a person with a higher income could simply pay a fine, a low-income person cannot — and this can lead to “collateral consequences.”
“It could be a traffic offence,” she said. “If someone can’t pay a fine to get their car out of impound . . . they can’t get to work and may lose their job and can’t pick up their children on time.
“Think of a ‘snowball effect.’ You or I may be fortunate to handle it with a phone call or writing a check, but a simple traffic ticket is not a simple affair for many members of our society.”
The courts, she said, are beginning to realize that there can be alternatives to the traditional consequences of incarceration and financial penalties that better serve low-income persons — and society.
Baker cautions that, while trying to decriminalize certain behavior, “we have to be careful that we don’t leave out victims.
“Victims deserve a system that is fair to them as well: fair to the criminal defendant, but also fair to victims.”
Justice, she said, could be a variety of things: a prison term, no charges filed, or a neighborhood accountability board.
“The whole idea is: Can we restore both sides of the equation back to where they were before the crime happened,” said Baker.
The panel covered a lot of ground in the examination of this complicated topic, said Scholl, and he took a few things away from the event.
“We need to have more conversations about the unintended consequences of how we enforce the law, particularly how we need to apply the Catholic teaching of the preferential option for the poor, and ask how policies like bail impact the poorest of the poor in our communities,” he said.
“Is it right,” he continued, “for a person who is arrested for a minor infraction, if they don’t have the money for bail, [to] lose their job without having been convicted of a crime? “We need to ask: How does our enforcement of the law impact those of limited means?”