It seems like every day we learn about another facet of the cruelty of the American criminal justice system. Ava DuVernay’s blockbuster Netflix documentary When They See Us has heightened the furor over the fact that, in America, law enforcement means “control” rather than “justice” for people of color. And while the story of how the American legal system failed the Central Park Five is horrific — and for some, hard to watch — it is only one of many chapters in the saga of how this country lashes people of color with judicial oppression.
Just as we should not avert our eyes from the tragedy suffered by the Central Park Five, we should not avert our eyes from the plight of poor women of color who remain behind bars simply because they are poor.
The nonprofit organization Prison Policy Initiative has reported that almost two out of every three women in jail have not been convicted of a crime. They are incarcerated awaiting the resolution of their cases. The main reason for this startling fact is that many women are unable to raise the necessary funds for cash bail. And this, simply put, is punishment for the “crime of poverty.”
The Prison Policy Initiative has reported that in 2015, the median income for Black women incarcerated prior to trial was $9,083, while the typical amount of bail in those instances was $10,000. It is obscene that too often bail is set at an amount greater than the annual income of a person facing a minor charge.
It is not uncommon for people of color to be sent to jail for not paying fines. And it is outrageous when those people are incarcerated for not paying fines and fees for violations that are not jailable offenses.
The threat of incarceration and, ultimately, incarceration has been used by some cities and towns strapped for money to squeeze dollars out of the most vulnerable members of their communities.
In 2015, CNN reported how the U.S. Justice Department revealed a pattern and practice of racial discrimination within Ferguson, Mo. that targeted African American residents for tickets and fines. And when these tickets and fines went unpaid, those residents often went to jail.
Not only is this practice a grave injustice, but it inflicts wounds upon our society. The New York Review of Books reports that eight out of 10 women in jail are mothers, and most of them are single parents. There should be no need to explain how parental incarceration impacts negatively on a child. Studies by the Prison Policy Initiative have linked parental incarceration to that child’s risk of violence and victimization, as well as chronic health problems.
Incarceration can cause a woman to lose her job, lose her housing and even lose her child. Incarceration of the poor is a public policy that creates and maintains a cycle of poverty. It is well known that incarceration usually results in the loss of a job. It is less well known that incarceration often results in the loss of stable housing.
In his 2016 book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, sociologist and Princeton University professor Matthew Desmond set out that, “Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.” And Princeton University’s “Eviction Lab” published an online report in 2018, Why Eviction Matters, stating that evictions “disproportionately affect low-income women, in particular, women of color.”
Drilling down into this injustice, we find that, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, “[I]ncarcerated women are more likely than incarcerated men to be poor, single parents, primary caregivers, and to be victims of violence, abuse, and trauma.”
Because of policies being made by those who do not care about the plight of these victims of poverty, women now represent a higher proportion of the U.S. prison and jail populations than in the past.
A May 2019 analysis of the Bureau of Justice Statistics data by essayists in the New York Review of Books reveals that in “1983, women made up just under 9 percent of people admitted to jail. By 2000, that share had grown to 15 percent; and in 2016, women comprised 23 percent of all admissions.”
Women of color work the hardest for the least amount of money, and because they have the least money, they are the most likely to be jailed for their poverty.
When America looks in the mirror, we see we are a nation that not only jails the poor for being poor, but we jail the poorest of the poor. Is this who we want to be? Is this who we want our country to be? This nation was founded upon so many injustices, too many of which persist to this day. One of those is punishing the poor for being poor.
Gone are the days of debtors’ prisons, but imprisoning the poor is still with us. It is time to take a stand and demand that our lawmakers turn this practice into nothing more than a bad memory.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.