Poverty and the Local Justice System

Police in riot gear stand outdoors

Racial segregation, poverty and criminal prosecutions don’t just happen by accident; nor do they do not reflect some natural, unavoidable social pattern. On Google+, Yonatan Zunger reshared a great Washington Post article on how local government revenue in poor Black neighbourhoods operates through racist practices. In the excellent linked article from Washington Post, the author writes: “Ferguson and Michael Brown and may have obscured the larger issues that affect tens of thousands of people across the entire St. Louis area.” The author makes the point that everyday harassment by police and the functioning of the municipal justice system is entrenching poverty for Black communities. I would make the connection stronger.

The criminal justice system is set up as state revenue, where the poor are jailed for petty issues like not paying fines they can’t afford. Police are encouraged to pursue fines and warrants, and it’s easier to target Black Americans who have fewer resources to contest. Humiliation is part of routine policing in these areas: As one person puts it in the article, “You can only take so much.” Police brutality is therefore an extension of this economic model.

Yonatan is currently reading Slavery by Another Name, and I also recommend Cop in the Hood, by sociologist Peter Moskos. Moskos underwent police training and wrote about his first year as a police officer in Baltimore. Race dynamics are similarly explored: how racial profiling is built-into police business, given that police departments are under pressure to increase arrests to supplement their budgets. It also shows how distrust builds up between poor and disadvantaged communities and the police. People don’t come forward for help because they’ve learned the system won’t treat them fairly. If you want to delve deeper, I recommend, The New Jim Crow by civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander.  It’s focused on national incarceration patterns and race in the USA.

In Australia, the local fines also disproportionately impact Black Australians, resulting from the broader ‘racist, offensive and degrading police behaviour.’ For example: