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Out of the frying pan…

I’ve been hinting for a while that I want to take on the topic of poverty, but have been chasing down more urgent/contemporary topics. It just so happens that at the end of this week I have a brief window to begin laying some of the ground work for what will eventually become my ultimate point. I’ve already tipped my hand a couple of times in topics I wrote back in July, but I haven’t made the point completely explicit yet. It’s not that it will be monumental or groundbreaking – I’m not trying to plant teasers as much as I am trying to apologize for not getting to it yet.

I did my graduate degree in Kingston, Ontario which is a city about 300 km east of Toronto. Kingston was once the capital of Canada and home to its first Prime Minister. More recently, Kingston has become the home of 3 things: Queen’s University, the Royal Military College, and a metric fuck-ton of prisons. There are 7 prisons within the municipal borders of the city, with two more in the outlying area. When a family member is imprisoned, particularly if that family member is the main income-earner, the whole family suffers as a result. I am not interested in trying to determine who is to blame – many criminals go to jail because they made poor decisions and deserve their punishment. The point is that there is ‘collateral damage’ to the family.

It was common enough to see families move to Kingston to live close to where the bread-winner (usually the father) was in jail. These were more often than not single-parent families, meaning that the remaining adult at home worked a part-time job to ensure sufficient time for child care. These were not people who were rich before their spouse was locked up, so it’s not a stretch to picture the kind of economic shape most of these families were in. The TL/DR version of this situation is that imprisonment can be economically catastrophic to young families. There is an additional issue that I have to confess I was totally ignorant of:

The fees levied on prisoners are put there by state legislatures who have found  a group few people will stick up for. But this is short-term thinking at its finest.  For example, a report on the issue by the Brennan Center for Justice studied Mecklenburg County in North Carolina, which in 2009 arrested 564 people for failing to pay their debts and jailed just under half of them for several days before their hearings.   The cost of jailing them — even for a short time — far outweighed the money eventually collected.

“Look at the cost of year in jail for just one person,” said Rebekah Diller, an author of the report. ($30,000 per year is the low end.)  “If this only drives a few people back into the system you’re already undermining any revenue you might raise.”

These debts would seem to drive more than a few back into the system.  Probation officers are the front line people pushing probationers to pay, and one of their most effective weapons is the threat of arrest.  But this drives probationers into hiding if they don’t have the money.  “They end up going underground, not fulfilling their probation requirements because they can’t fulfill the court fees,” said Abrigal Forrester, a program coordinator for StreetSafe Boston, which does gang intervention and other work to help reduce crime in tough neighborhoods.   If you skip your meetings with probation, you are probably going back to prison.

So imagine this, if you will. Let us suppose that for any of a wide variety of reasons you were so deep in debt that you couldn’t pay your way out. Family connections cannot help you, and bankruptcy isn’t an option. You are then charged with failure to pay your debt and go to jail (apparently this is not possible in Canada, but please bear with me for the sake of argument). While in jail, your debt accumulates interest. Due to a well-intentioned but ultimately myopic “tough on crime” policy, you are charged a fee for your prison stay. When you are released from jail, you are deeper in debt than you were before you went in, but you cannot secure gainful employment because you have a criminal record.

Now of course you wouldn’t turn to a life of crime at this point, dear reader. No, you’d get extra-long bootstraps (on sale, because you’re thrifty) and tug yourself to economic freedom. But perhaps a neighbour of yours who is not quite so virtuous as you would succumb to the lure of breaking the law in order to make enough cash to feed your family and pay down her debt. Perhaps she’s not quite the criminal mastermind she thinks she is, and gets charged, this time with an actual crime. It’s back to prison for her, with the weight of a conviction on top of the still-mounting debt.

This is the experience of a number of people. Even without the initial charge of ‘being in debt’ sending you to jail, putting someone in prison can trap them in a spiral of criminality and recidivism that goes beyond simplistic explanations of the criminal mind and “gangsterism”. I am not trying to suggest that every convict is an innocent victim of circumstance; only that some are, and we can make changes to our social system to ensure that these folks have an easier chance of it. As it stands now, our prisons might be creating more new prisoners, rather than accomplishing their ostensible goal of reducing crime and protecting communities from criminals.

I bring this story up as an example of why I think we need broader, more forward-thinking approaches to crime and justice. I think it would be better to recognize that convicts do not disappear when they leave prison, and that many would, if given the opportunity, prefer to make an honest living than scramble the streets trying to avoid getting caught and sent back. Any program that increases poverty or fails to provide a clear pathway out is ultimately doing our entire society a disservice.

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