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Georgetown Law Professor Peter Edelman Publishes New Book "Not a Crime To Be Poor"

October 24, 2017 —

Peter Edelman, the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law and Public Policy at Georgetown Law, publishes his new book, "Not a Crime to Be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America" (The New Press) on October 31. We sat down with Edelman, who is the faculty director of Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, to speak about not only the criminalization of poverty but also about how to end poverty for good.

Peter Edelman's Not a Crime to Be Poor Book CoverA former legislative aide to the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy in the 1960s and a legendary advocate for the disadvantaged, Edelman will speak about his book at Georgetown Law’s Gewirz Student Center on November 7 at 5 p.m. He will also be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Street NW on October 31 at 7 p.m.; November 2 at the Center for American Progress on 1333 H. St. NW at noon; November 27 at Busboys & Poets at 14th and V Streets at 6:30 p.m.; and December 15 at Google Inc., 25 Massachusetts Avenue NW, 9th Floor, at 6:30 p.m. 

How would you describe the book to someone who has no idea about the criminalization of poverty in America? 

Most Americans think debtors’ prisons are long gone, but it turns out that people are in jail by the thousands, all over America, for no other reason than that they are poor. Some lawyers and others have known for some time that people are being locked up for misdemeanors and low-level offenses, but the problem became visible to people around the country as a result of what happened in Ferguson, Missouri. After the death of Michael Brown, Americans found out that the city was balancing its budget by arresting its own residents over and over again, and collecting exorbitant fines and fees and putting them in jail if they could not pay. 

It turned out that this was not just happening in Ferguson. It was happening all over the country…the biggest part of it is drivers’ license suspensions. In California, four million people have lost their drivers’ licenses — not only because they couldn’t pay a fine, but because they kept on driving, because they had to get to work, or to get the kids to school, or buy the groceries, and were arrested again and again. And so they owe more and more. In some states, they put people in jail. In others, they garnish their wages and have their tax refunds taken away. But that’s not all of it…we’re criminalizing poverty in many ways.

How else has poverty become criminalized? 

We’re criminalizing kids. Children in school are not “just” suspended or expelled — they are being sent to court for things that in the past would have just sent the child to the principal’s office. People are being threatened or even prosecuted for mistakes they make with public benefits. The homeless are arrested over and over again because cities want to push them out of town. Women call 911 too often for domestic violence, and under laws called chronic nuisances, the police order the landlord to evict the woman. There is really a pattern adding up to the criminalization of poverty.

Why is it happening? What’s contributing to this?

It starts with the Reagan-era anti-tax revolution that expanded in the Clinton period and even more in the Great Recession. There’s always been a part of our national psyche that thinks that people who are in poverty don’t deserve to be helped. The states and municipalities were desperate to find revenue, especially to run the courts, the jails and the whole criminal justice system, and so fines and fees that used to be a matter of 25 dollars or 50 dollars end up being exorbitant for a single instance of speeding or something like not mowing the back yard. So that’s basically where it came from — in order to pay for the courts and prisons, and using private probation companies, they just piled higher and higher fines and fees. 

You start the book with the unbelievable story of Vera Cheeks…

Vera Cheeks was a resident of Bainbridge, Georgia, who was ticketed for rolling through a stop sign. She was hit with a $135 fee, which in the world of exorbitant fines and fees was far from the worst. But the judge said she had to pay right away, and she was unemployed. She was taking care of her terminally ill father and she didn’t have the money. So the judge said she could go on probation and she would have three months to pay. 

The judge sent her to a room next to the courtroom, and there was a long line of people, and like her, everybody was African American. And instead of $135, just by walking through that door, she owed $267. $105 for so-called probation…and she was socked with $27 for the Georgia Victim Emergency Fund. The woman behind the desk said that Ms. Cheeks had to sign a paper showing she owed the $267. Ms. Cheeks refused and the woman said she would get the judge to put Ms. Cheeks in jail. The woman then said if Ms. Cheeks could find $50, she would be let out for the moment. 

Her fiancé hocked her engagement ring and a lawn implement. They got the money and she was out. But if she hadn’t found a lawyer, she probably wouldn’t have been able to pay the rest of the money and she would have gone to jail. She went home and Googled a lawyer, found a lawyer from the Southern Center for Human Rights who not only saved Ms. Cheeks but forced the city to change its policies. The vast number of low-income people who get caught in that trap don’t get a lawyer. So the minute they can’t pay on the payment plan, they get jailed for not paying on time. This can go on and on. So Vera Cheeks was fortunate.

In one part of the book, you say that this is the sibling of mass incarceration. How so?

Mass incarceration started in the 1970s and we know the number of people in prison are disproportionately African American and Latino. We had already developed this culture of locking people up, but we think of it as being for serious crimes. It turns out that people are locked up by the millions for low-level things. They are then held on bail for amounts they can’t afford to pay, and then have to plead guilty to get out. So they get enmeshed in this situation that they just can’t escape. It’s really mass incarceration Act Two, because it is about arresting people wholesale. In many parts of the country, it’s connected to the idea of “broken windows” — the idea that if we just arrest a lot of people for minor violations, it will clean up the city, create safer streets. In fact, it adds even more defendants who are cash registers to raise money toward filling the state’s or city’s coffers.

 There are really four things going on together. One is the anti-tax revolution. The second is the mass arrests that provide the needed money. Third is the way that money bail works. And the fourth thing is, we just don’t have enough lawyers to represent the people.

What inspired you to write this book? 

I’ve been working on poverty issues for many decades, and I thought I really knew a lot. We all know about mass incarceration. It was just shocking to find out with Ferguson that there was this whole new way of punishing the poor for being poor. Understanding the awful situation that became visible with Ferguson, I thought I should write about it, to add something to people’s understanding of how big this whole thing is, including all of the criminalization beyond the fines and fees.

This is your third book. How is this different from your other books?

They build on each other. The first one was partly memoir, about Robert Kennedy and his commitment to end poverty in the country, and his legacy. The second talked about how hard it is to end poverty. This builds out from both of those to more causes of poverty and deepening poverty in ways that I had never thought about.

You were the legislative aide to Robert F. Kennedy. How does he continue to inspire you nearly 50 years after his death? 

Well, look at my office [indicating RFK photos]. It’s a commitment that I feel to make some contribution to ending poverty in the country, and I got that from Robert Kennedy. He was passionate about it, and I had the enormous good fortune to work for him and learn from him, and learn together when I went with him to places all over the country and saw firsthand poverty, urban and rural, people of all races and backgrounds. When we lost him, I found myself wanting to continue that work.

You are the faculty director of Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality. What are some of the issues the center is addressing?

There’s a lot going on. The continuing work on girls who are marginalized — especially girls of color and issues of trauma in their lives and the effect that has on what happens to them in school. We’ve been doing a continuing set of things that relate to jobs and especially young people, laying out for the country how we can improve our policies, and seeing to it that we have systems and structures to help young people who otherwise don’t have full opportunities… 

What are the conclusions in your book?

We have fines and fees all over the country. It’s the criminalization of poverty — not just about fines and fees, but kids being sent to court and women evicted from their homes because they called 911 for protection from domestic violence. There are people all over the country who are working hard to push back: lawyers, journalists, public officials, legislators, judges who want to change things… But we really need a movement. We need people demanding that all of this be changed — in the way that people have risen up with regard to the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid. At least for now, October 2017, we’ve saved those programs…

What should we be doing?

Step one is fighting back about the prosecutions that take place now, and of course money bail reform. The second is decarceration, true reform of our criminal justice system. The third is ending poverty itself. I went to seven places in the country where people are doing remarkable work, from California to Chicago to New York to Minneapolis to Tulsa, Oklahoma and New Haven, Connecticut. They are working in high poverty neighborhoods, helping people get from here to there, helping children improve in schools, strengthening communities. This is primary prevention. We must make the reforms within the criminal justice system, but we absolutely have to minimize the number of people who end up committing crimes. That means providing everything that is necessary to give children the same opportunities in their lives that my grandchildren have. 

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