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Progress and Unfinished Business in the Fight Against the Criminalization of Poverty

Seventy-five years ago this month, in Edwards v. California, the Supreme Court struck down a California law that prohibited bringing an indigent nonresident into the state.  The case involved a California man driving to Texas to bring his brother-in-law – who had no job and only $20 in his pocket – into California.  The California man, Fred Edwards, was convicted of a misdemeanor for knowingly bringing an indigent person into the state and sentenced to six months in jail.

The Supreme Court ruled that the California statute was unconstitutional, explaining that its “express purpose and inevitable effect is to prohibit the transportation of indigent persons across the California border.”  A concurring opinion added that restricting the movement of people living in poverty “would permit those who were stigmatized by a [s]tate as indigents … to be relegated to an inferior class of citizenship.”

In the decades that followed, the court issued other pivotal decisions related to the treatment of people living in poverty, including Bearden v. Georgia, in 1983, ruling that the Constitution “prohibits punishing a person for his poverty.”  In recent years, the Department of Justice has worked tirelessly to make the promise of those words a reality in communities around the country.  Through enforcement actions and court filings, we have challenged harmful and unlawful practices and policies that result in the criminalization of poverty.

Our investigation into the Ferguson, Missouri, Police Department and Municipal Court last year shined a national spotlight on this issue.  In addition to discrimination against African-American residents, we found that the city was using policing as a means to generate revenue.  The city routinely issued multiple citations with excessive fines and fees for minor violations – fines like $302 for jaywalking, $427 for disturbing the peace and $531 for allowing high grass and weeds to grow on your lawn.  When people living in poverty could not pay these fines and fees, they were arrested, jailed and subjected to additional fines and fees that far exceeded the cost of the original ticket.  These practices broke the law, punished poverty and destroyed trust. 

Sadly, the problems we found in Ferguson aren’t isolated.  They exist around the country.  That’s why earlier this year, the Civil Rights Division and the department’s Office for Access to Justice sent a dear colleague letter to state and local judges to help them guard against unlawful fine, fee and bail practices that can trap people in inescapable cycles of debt, poverty and incarceration. 

And just last week, we filed a statement of interest in a Virginia case centered on the state’s automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for people who fail to pay court fines and fees.  In Virginia, 900,000 people – or one in six drivers – have had their licenses suspended under these circumstances.  We know how devastating the consequences can be.  People depend on driver’s licenses to get to work, to go to the doctor and to provide for their families.  In our brief, we explained that suspending a person’s license for non-payment of court debt – without first providing her a hearing and without inquiring into whether she is simply too poor to pay – violates the Constitution.

Beyond fines and fees, we’ve continued to engage on all fronts to combat policies that punish people for their poverty.  Last year, in an Idaho case called Bell v. Boise, we argued that because every human being must sleep at some time and in some place, arresting and punishing a person for sleeping in public – when there aren’t enough shelter beds in the city and she has nowhere else to go – criminalizes the status of being homeless.

In cases in Alabama and Georgia, we’ve argued that that if bail practices result in jailing people solely because of their poverty – without consideration of their ability to pay or alternatives to incarceration – those practices violate the Constitution.

And we’ve also worked to address the crisis of indigent defense, where underfunding and high burdens can prevent public defenders from providing the legal representation their clients deserve and the Constitution guarantees.

The bottom line is that being poor or homeless is a hardship, not a crime.  And so when public institutions enact policies or laws that result in punishing poverty, those policies not only violate the law.  They are also bad public policy.  And they do nothing to help vulnerable residents – many of whom are just one step away from losing their home, their healthcare or their job – to get back on their feet and find economic stability.  A 2012 report from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness addresses these concerns and highlights a number of promising alternatives to criminalizing homelessness.

Preventing the criminalization of poverty is central to advancing America’s promise of equal justice for all.  As Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said this week, “All of us – but especially those of us in the legal profession – have an obligation to fight for our belief that there can be no price tag on justice.”

Justice must remain an undeniable right for all, not a special privilege for some.

Updated March 3, 2017

Access to Justice
Civil Rights