Is It A Crime To Be Poor In America? Prof. Edelman Proves Quite Definitively That It Is


Review Of Not A Crime To Be Poor: The Criminalization Of Poverty In America

Can we really say that there is equality in America when so many indigent individuals are not taken care of fairly?

Before you start to argue that there is no crime in being poor, the simple fact is that it is a crime, only perhaps in a round about way.

Imagine for a moment that you have just gotten a traffic ticket. Everyone gets them sometimes. But you are an indigent person of very little means, and you cannot afford to represent yourself. But you know that the police officer pulled you over without just cause. Most likely, it was the very last day of the month, the day when most police officers have to fill their quotas.

Leaving aside for a moment that argument that quotas for police officers are completely unjust, and could be and have in some instances been proven unconstitutional, all police stations have these quotas.

So what does that mean for you and I? Well, it means that on those last days of each month, police officers might stretch the truth a little bit. Say they saw you do something that is questionable and may be untrue. One of our editors had exactly this happen on the very last day of March. He was not speeding, not passing anyone on the right, not driving carelessly, but a cop claimed that he was.

Does the truth matter? Only if you can prove it, and unfortunately the only real proof is a perfectly functioning dash camera that you make sure is always recording. It helps if it is recording both the road and the driver, if possible, as they do make those kinds of dash cams.

So, leaving aside the argument against quotas, unofficial quota systems exist in almost every police station. They need to make money for the town or county, and the best way to do this is to issue traffic tickets with high fines, make arrests, and give other types of tickets.

An officer on Staten Island alleged, in a case which was dismissed due to many claims being past the statute of limitations, that his station house had such quotas. The punishment for an officer not meeting their quotas for the month is whatever police duty is most dreaded by all or most of the officers. For example, walking on the Brooklyn Bridge all night in the frigid cold, being denied overtime opportunities and vacations, etc.

Another police officer in the Bronx alleged that he was retaliated against for reporting illegal quotas in use in his police station, by “…[being] given punitive assignments, denied overtime and leave, separated from his longtime partner, given poor evaluations, and subjected to constant harassment and threats…”  As one might expect, this case was dismissed in 2012, and there is no information about the appeal that is presently in progress.

According to the New York branch of the ACLU, at the same link as in the previous paragraph, “For years, the Department has been mired in scandals about its use of quotas that lead to unjustified stops and arrests of innocent people. Starting in May 2010, the Village Voice ran a series of articles exposing a quota system in the 81st Precinct in Brooklyn as revealed by audio tapes secretly made by Officer Adrian Schoolcraft. A police officer in Queens recently admitted that the use of enforcement quotas led officers to plant cocaine on innocent people in order to boost arrest numbers.”

By the way, in New York, quotas for police officers and stations are completely illegal, by law and statute.  According to a Landline Media report, about a bill being considered this year:

“The Empire State prohibits an employer from transferring or penalizing a police officer for failure to meet an established ticket quota.

According to figures compiled by Governing magazine, there are 34 localities in New York where fines and forfeitures account for more than 10% of general fund revenue. There are 12 localities that collect more than 20%. Another five receive more than 30%.”

Since 2010, according to the NYCLU, quota systems have been illegal: “In August 2010, then-Gov. David Paterson signed legislation that expanded protections for police officers under the state’s anti-quota statute to ban retaliation against officers for not meeting quotas for tickets, summonses, arrests, and stop-and-frisk encounters. Previously, the quota law only covered traffic violations.”

In New Jersey, ticket quotas for motor vehicle citations are also illegal.  They are covered under 2013 New Jersey Revised Statutes, Title 40A – MUNICIPALITIES AND COUNTIES, Section 40A:14-181.2 – Police ticket quota for motor vehicle violations prohibited; permitted use of statistics, which can be read here.

Any kind of quota system naturally leads to many injustices. They are technically illegal in many states, but they are used in unofficial ways to escape detection.  People who are of low income cannot usually afford an attorney. In New Jersey, a traffic lawyer will run you in the range of $500. How many people who are indigent have that kind of money lying around, or are able to get it? Not very many. So a lot of them will represent themselves.

Being a pro se litigant (representing yourself) almost always means that the decks are stacked against you. The judge and prosecutor may be openly hostile, and will certainly not give you special treatment due to the fact that you are not a lawyer and are not familiar with all of the rules of procedure (which are many). When a person has been accused of committing a traffic violation, often times such charges carry points on the license. These points can be devastating to low income drivers, because they almost always mean that their insurance premiums are going to go up.

One of the larger problems that Prof. Edelman discusses in the book, though, is the indiscriminate use of license suspension. Just think about that for a second. In most states in this country, if you do not have a car, you are not going anywhere. You can’t go to work, you can’t take your kids to school, you can’t do anything. Outside of New York City, Chicago, and a few other places, public transportation is a joke. Either it won’t get you to where you need to go, or it will take you forever to get there.

I have tried to use the public transportation system in New Jersey from Staten Island when I had to take my car in for repairs. It was the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen. In order to get from Staten Island to Summit, New Jersey, I had to walk over the Bayonne Bridge (since it was outside of rush hour, when the bus would take you over), take the Bayonne Light Rail to the Hoboken Terminal, then take the train into Manhattan to 34th Street, then take another train into Newark, where I could get on the train that took me to Summit. It was a FOUR HOUR trip each direction. So, in New Jersey, you MUST have a car.

Many judges nationwide are intentionally or accidentally oblivious to this fact, or they dislike the people that they are there to serve very much, because license suspensions are used liberally across the country, including for minor traffic infractions.

Many Black people are disproportionately affected by this, because Black people are pulled over for minor traffic infractions more frequently that White people. And in many cases, according to Professor Edelman, they are treated more unfairly than their White counterparts.

So, if a Black person of low income lives in a state such as New Jersey, and they have a job and children to take to school, what do they do? They continue to drive their car, hoping and praying that they won’t get caught. If they do get caught, they are sent to jail. This causes them to quite often lose their job, so that they are even more unable to pay fines, fees, and court costs associated with their traffic violation and with their arrest.

Most people are unaware, until they are caught in the system, that attorneys are only provided in criminal court. However, there is now a situation in many states where the states claim they are strapped for cash, so they CHARGE the people who are in criminal court for something that is GUARANTEED under the Constitution: a criminal lawyer.

How they are able to do this is something that I cannot understand. However, it makes some sense in that in order for an unjust law to be changed, the person affected by that law has to take the county to court. Most people don’t know this, and just go along with it, to their own detriment. The Constitution only protects people who stand up for themselves and their own rights.

I want to mention before I continue that New York and New Jersey do provide free public defenders for those facing criminal charges. But they are the rarity. Looking at the image below, which is taken from National Legal Aid And Defender Association, this map shows which states allow for reimbursement of fees to be required by those accused of a crime. This is 42 states!

According to their data, “Utah is the only state with a statute that prohibits the assessment of upfront fees onto applicants for court-appointed counsel. California, Kentucky, and New Jersey each previously had laws that allowed for the assessment of an upfront fee, which have been repealed. ….42 states and the District of Columbia have laws authorizing the assessment of fees onto defendants for the cost of their appointed legal counsel.”

Does State Law Authorize Cost of Counsel Reimbursement Fees for People Represented by Appointed Counsel?
Image Credit – NLADA

For a person in New York City, this may be hard to believe. But right there, in the data, is the proof that it is a crime to be poor. Because what happens to a person who is unable to pay for their Constitutionally-guaranteed public defender? They go right back to jail, for which they are assigned another or the same public defender, racking up more fees and court costs, and they get into a vicious cycle that they may never be able to get out of.

This is not just conjecture. Professor Edelman’s book contains story after story of exactly this kind of thing happening all across the country. While he does mention some positives, where people have been able to fight the fines and fees, or even fight the laws requiring these payments and getting them repealed, this is not the norm.

Eviction and quality of life laws are terrible for low income people

Then, there is eviction. In some states, when a person doesn’t pay their rent five days after the first of the month, the sheriff comes and locks them out of their home at the landlords request. There are literally states where tenants have NO rights. New York is NOT one of those states, and California also has very strong protections for renters. But for states in the Midwest, the South, and other parts of America, it’s a whole different ball game. Tenants are evicted with nothing, left out on the street to fend for themselves.

In these very same states, there are laws that are designed to protect “quality of life,” and push out homeless and indigent persons who have no place to go. Many states have laws and ordinances outlawing sleeping outside, thus criminalizing homelessness. This is not uncommon, and it does not help anyone. It simply pushes the problem elsewhere.

Money Bail Systems

Money bail systems are another way that the poor are criminalized. In many states, even recently in New York, when people are arrested, they have to pay bail in order to go free before their case is tried. Often, the money bail amounts are far out of reach of even ordinary citizens, but much more so for those of low income.

Couple that with the fact that there are kickbacks to state officials, and almost all of the bail companies were for-profit companies, and it was a recipe for disaster. While there are many who complain about New York’s bail reform laws, they were made with good intentions.

The money bail system favors criminals with money, because they can afford to pay the bail, and punishes those of limited means. According to Prof. Edelman, there have been many studies that have shown that the vast majority of people who are arrested WILL return to court on their appointed date, making money bail completely unnecessary and unfair.

Public Benefits, or lack thereof, and the further criminalization of the indigent

If you watch the mainstream media on any given day, you are likely to hear about the welfare system, and how terrible it is, and how it costs so much money and lets people be lazy. For the most part, all of these things are not true. First of all, the welfare system IS terrible, but not because it helps too many people. It is terrible because it helps too few people.

According to Prof. Edelman’s data, in multiple states, such as Texas and Florida, only FIVE PERCENT of those who qualify for welfare or for food stamps actually get it. Five percent! In those states, there is NO HELP for those who have fallen on hard times. One of the biggest reasons for this is the terrible law known as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families).

This law, passed during the Clinton Administration, allows the states to receive block grants for their welfare system, with which they can do whatever they want. In most cases, they do not want to help people who need it, so the money either sits there or gets spent on other programs that don’t help anyone.

We covered this previously in an article by Propublica; many states simply hoard these unused billions of dollars (likely gathering interest on the money), instead of giving them to the poor in their states, which is what they are meant for.

This is not the only issue with TANF, however. In most states, New York included, the governments make it incredibly difficult to get food stamps or welfare, often requiring people to wait on line for eight hours or more, and usually turning away those who have waited, without allowing them to apply.

This happens on Staten Island, in fact. If you go to the welfare building on the Terrace anytime of day, there is a line wrapping around the block to get into the welfare office. Inside, there are several rows of ropes that one also has to wait on. And if you do not arrive early enough, and you have not been seen by 5pm, you are told to go home, come back another time. This could be after waiting hours and hours.

And that is not the only way they make it difficult. They have “random” verifications, for which the indigent person must go to another location to be verified, often far away from their home (for example, a Staten Islander is sent deep into the heart of Brooklyn).

They also have work requirements, or they will put you to work if you don’t have a job. Mind you, the work that you do is FOR the food stamps you are getting, usually at a maximum rate of $200 per month per person. So, if you are put to work as a janitor for a PRIVATE company that does NOT pay you for your work, you are essentially working for $2-$4 per hour, for your benefits and not for pay, depending on how many hours you are made to work.

Then, of course there is the attempt, at every turn, to purge the rolls. There are rules that are easily broken by most people. For example, there is a person whose story is told in the book where a woman and her 12 year old daughter were living in a long-stay motel, too poor to afford all of their utility bills, and choosing which ones to pay each month.

The woman was making a little extra money by selling her blood plasma. When the welfare office found out, they tried to cut her benefits. This particular person’s story is known because she found a justice advocate who represented her, and after a seven hour trial, she was able to win. Most people are not so lucky, and they can not only lose their benefits, they can be jailed as well. And then have to pay a public defender, thus digging themselves deeper into the hole of poverty, as discussed above.

Child Support and the Criminalization of Poor Fathers

All of the above issues are bad enough, but there is one last thing that should be covered in this review and summary. Criminalization of poor fathers who cannot pay child support. Child support provides a crucial good for children in America. In most instances, the father is able to pay, and only those who can be considered “deadbeat dads” do not pay, and they are often jailed if the state can find them.

But what about those fathers who are unable to pay child support due to lack of a job or making too little to pay for their own expenses plus those of their child? They are often jailed as well, and they are often jailed again and again, because they are racking up even more charges (for public defenders) which they also cannot pay.

There are fathers around the country who are unskilled and cannot find a job. There are some who are homeless. There are some who have mental disabilities and are unable to hold a job. Not one of these things is taken into consideration by courts when deciding whether to assess child support, how much it should be, or to put someone in jail.

Even when the child support is calculated, it is never based on the ability of the father to pay. Instead it is almost always determined by the cost of raising a child, and thus is different in every state. But one thing that stays the same is that child support MUST always be paid under penalty of jail time or garnishment.

There are some dads who have money and refuse to pay, for whatever reason. Perhaps their ex is a horrible person, perhaps they have no contact with their child due to their ex and don’t feel obligated to support them. But there are a significant number of fathers who cannot afford the cost of child support which, again, is not based on their income or ability to pay. It is often above their means to make the payments, and so they do not.

While there are some fathers who flee the state and find cash-only jobs, in most cases states are able to garnish wages, track down fathers and put them in jail, assess late fees and fines, and use other measures to extract the money from them.

Professor Edelman makes the fair point that, in all cases, child support should be assessed on two bases, instead of just one: the cost of raising a child in that state AND the ability of the father to pay.

When this is not done, it will inevitably lead to problems down the road. When a person cannot pay for something, they cannot pay. It doesn’t matter what the penalty is: if they money is not there, they cannot provide it. It’s like the old expression, ‘you can’t squeeze blood from a stone.’ It would make more sense for child support to be assessed fairly, and it is possible that there would be fewer “deadbeat dads” if this was done. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and it is not likely to change anytime soon.

Final Thoughts

This book by Professor Edelman is a highly compelling read. He is an excellent writer, and an excellent speaker as well. He has been an activist for most of his life, doing the most he can to help others. Much of the book focuses on storytelling, bringing you into the lives of people who are suffering from the unfair laws that have been enacted in many states across the country. This makes it an easy and engaging read, with the pages turning quickly and interestingly.

This book is highly recommended, and for those who work for charities and in the non-profit sector, I would declare it to be essential reading.

We will be posting several interviews with Professor Edelman which were conducted recently, and are presently being edited. He goes into greater detail about each one of these issues, as well as other issues that have not been discussed. Please stay tuned for these interviews, as you will find them quite informative and highly compelling.

Banner Image: Not A Crime To Be Poor Cover. Image Credit – The New Press 

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