Our opinion: Turning the poor into criminals
Some people just can't seem to fathom why someone would run from a police officer or not treat one with respect.
Attorney KS Bloomfield, writing on her blog, contends it is because we have criminalized innocuous behaviors. "(T)ake a look at the 1001 reasons cops pull people over everyday. Tags, lights, tinted windows, loud music, seat belts, turn signals, motor vehicle inspection stickers, etc. Selling CDs and cigarettes. Little free libraries. What great social harm is there? At what cost to society do we want such nonsense criminalized to the point people cannot pay their rent, and, worse, die? ... Are these minor human 'misbehaviors' worth the violence that can ensue?"
This is especially true in Louisiana and Baton Rouge Parish itself, writes Bloomfield, where in 2015 there were more than 90,000 traffic filings. In places such as Gretna, also in Louisiana, and Ferguson, Mo., fines and court fees are a substantial addition to budgets stressed by cuts and lack of revenues.
"Ferguson's law enforcement practices are shaped by the City's focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs," noted the U.S. Department of Justice. "This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson's police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community."
"Cops use all these infractions as ruses to shake people down," writes Bloomfield. "Folks working at low paying jobs, sometimes two sometimes more. ... And then you get a parking ticket. A busted tail light. Fines and court costs total $700. Ya can't pay you go to jail."
Often, we fall back on "Let the courts iron it all out." But if you are poor and can't afford an attorney, you might find yourself with a stressed-out, over-worked public defender with a pile of cases over his or her head. If you get a public defender at all, that is. There is a lack of funding for public defense in every state, notes the Pew Charitable Trusts. "(A)nd people charged with low-level misdemeanors, often poor minorities, suffer the most. Without a lawyer to argue against ... exorbitant fees, fines and court costs, defendants are likely to end up in jail when they cannot pay."
Public defender's offices across the country are struggling because state and local funding has been cut while legislatures have simultaneously elevated many infractions from civil to criminal penalties, Colette Tvedt of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, tells Pew.
"You've got a lot more officers who do what officers do — and that is enforce the law and arrest people," Mark Stephens, the head of the public defender's office in Knox County, Tennessee, tells Pew. "But you don't see a corresponding increase in the funding for public defenders."
So it's no wonder some folks avoid police at all costs and don't trust them; because to them, the police are not there to serve and protect them, but to accost and extort them.
As Russel Honoré, a retired Army lieutenant general, tells CNN, the officers are often in the same financial situation. "You know, in Baton Rouge, the starting salary for a police officer, less than $31,000." That's less than $15 an hour. So when you complain about raising the federal minimum wage, it's not just the folks at the local burger joint cooking the stuff you put in your mouth who are affected. So now these men and women who are overworked and stressed-out and are dealing with people who don't treat them with respect or run or don't follow orders. How do we expect these situations to play out?
"We take this underpaid and highly stressed group of officers, with guns and any biases they may harbor, explicit or implicit, and flood disadvantaged communities with them, where uncivil behavior can often take root ..." writes Charles M. Blow for the New York Times. "Now where would this revenue come from if it were not being bled from poor people? That's right, the rest of the population. The tax dollar that your local government refused to exact from you is being exacted from dark flesh. That same city service that your town can't truly afford but refused to forgo is being paid for by gouging poor people who have almost nothing."
So the next time you feel self-righteous after learning about another "criminal" shot down in the streets because he or she failed to raise his or her arms, or ran from police, or talked back, think about what it might be like to realize you can't go to jail because you can't afford to pay the fines and fees or the time away from work. "You may think that you are not a part of this, but you are wrong," writes Blow. "That's just a lie that your willful ignorance and purposeful blindness perpetuates, to protect your conscience. This is absolutely about you, many, many of you. There are more bloody hands than meet the eye."
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