The Financial Burden Tied to Nonviolent Crimes is Destroying Poor Communities
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A terribly tragic incident involving a man from Texas is receiving little attention from the media.
According to Yahoo! News, Patrick Joseph Brown, a 46-year-old man accused of stealing a guitar, was booked on a misdemeanor theft charge on April 3. Forty-eight hours after failing to post bail, Brown was found beaten to a pulp in the cell he shared with several other men, including three men who had been charged with aggravated assault causing serious bodily harm. He was later pronounced dead at a local hospital.
While authorities in Harris County aren’t aware of what prompted the violent act, Brown was placed in a cell with violent suspects due to his failure to come up with $3,000. Brown’s teenage son is devastated.
To proponents of a comprehensive criminal justice reform, the financial burden tied to minor or drug-related crimes has become a reason of concern.
The drug war, for instance, has had a real impact on the poor across the United States. But the financial burden tied to other non-violent crimes has also been affecting low-income communities across the board.
Harriet Cleveland, a 49-year-old mother of three in Alabama, was arrested after not being able to pay a series of traffic tickets. She had accumulated a number of citations because she had been driving without a license for some time. She also had no insurance.
While Cleveland says she knew what she was doing “was wrong,” she had no choice. She had just found a job after some time, a part-time gig that paid her $7.25 per hour, and her son had to be taken to school. She felt that the tickets could wait. Unfortunately, the police didn’t agree.
After she was arrested, the judge sentenced her to two years of probation with Judicial Correction Services, a private probation company. Cleveland had to pay JCS $200 a month, the judge ordered. While Cleveland was able to make her payments throughout the first year, gathering whatever she could find to put the money together, she eventually fell behind on payments. After losing her part-time job, Cleveland had to turn in all of her income-tax rebate to JCS instead of fixing the holes in her bedroom walls. By summer of 2012, “the total court costs and fines had soared from hundreds of dollars incurred by the initial tickets to $4,713, including more than a thousand dollars in private-probation fees.”
In the past three decades, the size of America’s incarcerated population quadrupled. The overcriminalization of America has been, along with the drug war, partially to blame for this phenomena.
With federal agencies and state governments attaching jail time to otherwise non-criminal behavior, even private companies that rely on the criminal justice system like Judicial Correction Services saw an opportunity to fill in the gaps by offering the state the services public law enforcement agencies are supposed to offer but are unable to. Instead of looking at the laws for an answer to this problem—identifying what kind of laws should be scraped, and what kind of behavior should be spared jail time—many justice activists believe that the solution is to put an end to what they call “policing for profit.”
But whether non-violent arrestees are trapped in a cycle of debt and incarceration because of mounting court debt or because of other probation company fees, we must look deeper into this matter by identifying ways of only arresting those who have committed crimes worthy of jail time.
Jail is not the best place for a mother of three who’s struggling to make ends meet but nor is it a safe place for a non-violent arrestee taken into custody for allegedly stealing a guitar. If criminal justice reformers are serious about their goals, tackling the overcriminalization problem in the United States is the only solution.