More than 50 students and faculty gathered at the Ford School of Public Policy Thursday afternoon for a speech from Georgetown Law professor Peter Edelman on his current book, “Not a Crime to Be Poor.” The event was co-facilitated by the School of Public Policy School and the Poverty Solutions initiative at the University of Michigan.
Julia Weinhart, managing director of Poverty Solutions, which aims to address and combat poverty in and around the University, organized the event. Weinhart said the speech was part of a larger lecture series meant to encourage dialogue on the issues of poverty at the University.
“As part of our engagement series, we bring in speakers to speak on this issue and bring attention to the issue of poverty and poverty alleviation here on campus,” Weinhart said. “Peter recently released this book, and we think that it’s a really important piece on the topic, particularly around the criminalization of poverty, and so we wanted to bring him here this semester.”
Edelman’s book explores the concept of the criminalization of poverty and the systematic ways the government profits from incarceration. He cited the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, a Black man, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. and the subsequent national backlash as a key shift in the change of popular discourse surrounding the system of incarceration and paid bail, saying the problems in Ferguson are prominent across the country today.
“What opened my eyes is what really has opened America’s eyes,” he said. “Ferguson was this place that ran its municipal revenues, not by taxes, but to arrest everybody in town, and they would hit them with these huge fines.”
Edelman explained the process in which fines administered for petty violations can multiply when an individual is unable to pay them because of to lack of funds, time and accessibility. Often, the only apparent solution in this situation is to plead guilty and subsequently be put on probation, which includes fees that multiply the cost of the initial violation.
According to a 2014 NPR study, the municipal court in Ferguson issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses in 2013, such as driving offenses. The population of Ferguson at this time was 21,135 people. The same year, the city of Ferguson collected $2.6 million in fees and court fines.
Edelman said local and statewide governments rely on this flow of income, and thus construct the system accordingly. He cited the confiscation of driver’s licenses as a particularly malicious way to disable individuals from having the mobility to get to jobs, appointments and other necessary daily tasks.
“It’s not an overstatement to say that this is a governmental-operated loan shark system,” he said.
Edelman concluded his talk with the affirmation of a need for decarceration, a call for a change to the system which thrives on high fines and long sentences. He highlighted the necessity for a comprehensive policy for mentally ill individuals, as an example, to whom jail does not benefit.
“I hope my book shines a light on what happens to poor people within the shadows of our criminal justice system, but it’s not enough,” he said. “It’s time to act on what we know, to stop the cycle of inhumane incarceration of people for the crime of being poor.”
Social Work student Kaitlyn Giza expressed her appreciation for the event because of her family’s past personal experience with the criminal justice system.
“I actually am from Oklahoma, which actually has the highest rate of incarcerated women, including my mother, who has been in and out of prison her whole life and has dealt with this criminalization of poverty,” she said. “Some of the time she was going to prison not because she had done anything wrong, but because she couldn't pay for the fines and she couldn’t get a job because of the felony on her record.”
She expressed a shared sentiment with Edelman’s message. She said there must be a more large-scale policy change to benefit local communities as a whole.
“It’s an issue that’s been very close to my heart,” Giza said. “I’m very passionate about it — mass incarceration and finding ways to kind of decriminalize some of the things that we’ve made crimes — and how racism and other things intersect into that.”