How the United States Punishes People for Being Poor

Nazish Dholakia Senior Writer
Sep 21, 2023

The United States criminal legal system punishes people for being poor, and it happens in more ways than you might think. Here are four ways the United States criminalizes people experiencing poverty.

Local governments criminalize homelessness by making it illegal for people to sit, sleep, or rest in public spaces.

Almost every state has at least one law that bans activities people experiencing homelessness engage in simply to survive. Laws that prohibit panhandling, loitering, living in vehicles, or sharing food and water in public spaces all discriminate against people experiencing homelessness, as authorities eject them from public spaces, confiscate and destroy their property, and transport them to mass shelters and jails. These practices threaten their health and well-being and, ultimately, their lives.

There’s been an increase in these laws in recent years. The National Homelessness Law Center found that from 2006 to 2019, citywide bans on camping increased by 92 percent, on sitting or lying in public by 78 percent, on loitering by 103 percent, on panhandling by 103 percent, and on living in vehicles by 213 percent. New laws continue to be implemented even as the housing crisis has worsened, leaving more people unhoused.

But criminalizing people experiencing homelessness does not solve homelessness. Instead, we need to recognize that the homelessness crisis is an affordable housing crisis. And, in fact, creating affordable housing and services has repeatedly proven to cost less than criminalizing homelessness.

Money bail keeps legally innocent people in jail before trial, simply because they cannot afford to pay. Meanwhile, people who have money can buy their liberty.

U.S. jails are filled with people who have not been convicted of a crime. On any given day, more than two-thirds of people in jail—more than 400,000 people—are stuck behind bars while they wait for their day in court. Most of them are there simply because they cannot afford to pay bail. And because of that fact alone, they may spend days, months, or even years in jail.

Money bail creates a two-tiered system: those with financial means can pay to get out of jail, while people with low incomes and people experiencing poverty languish behind bars.

A 2022 study from the Federal Reserve Board found that 37 percent of Americans would struggle to cover a $400 emergency expense. So, it’s no surprise that many people in jail cannot afford bail that’s often set at thousands of dollars. And if they can’t, the consequences are devastating. People who cannot make bail face longer jail stays, increased pressure to plead guilty, and a higher likelihood of conviction. This has a devastating impact on their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

Research shows that even two days in jail can make it more likely for someone to lose their job, housing, or custody of their children and increases the likelihood that they will be arrested again in the future. Our system of cash bail is actually counterproductive to achieving public safety.

In states that have limited the use of cash bail, like New Jersey, court appearance rates have remained steady or improved, demonstrating that bail is not necessary to ensure people appear in court. And this month, Illinois became the first state in the nation to entirely eliminate cash bail, deciding that someone’s ability to pay bail should not determine whether or not they remain in jail.

Fines and fees can quickly add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars. People who cannot afford to pay can incur more fines and fees, have their driver’s license suspended, and even face jail time.

As the criminal legal system has grown over the past several decades, so have the number of fines and fees that jurisdictions impose on people.

Fines are a monetary punishment. They are imposed when a case is resolved, either by plea or conviction. Fees exist solely to collect money for government operations, and even people who have not been convicted of an offense can incur them. Examples of fees include court-appointed attorney fees, jail booking and processing fees, jail boarding fees, and drug testing fees, to name a few.

Jurisdictions impose fines and fees for nearly every type of offense, including traffic violations and minor infractions, which can quickly add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars. And if people cannot afford to pay, they will almost certainly—albeit illogically—face more fines, more fees, jail time, and a host of other consequences.

Several states, for example, suspend driver’s licenses for unpaid debt—a counterproductive move that only makes it harder for people to get to work and pay off any debt. People frequently report forgoing basic needs like food and missing rent and car payments to pay off their court-related fines and fees.

That’s not all that’s counterproductive about the way jurisdictions impose fines and fees. Recent studies show that fines and fees are an ineffective way to raise revenue, and some jurisdictions have spent about as much or more attempting to collect criminal legal system debt—and jailing people who could not pay—than they actually recoup.

People experiencing poverty are more likely to have mental health conditions. The U.S. criminalizes people experiencing mental health crises, too.

Living near or below the poverty line creates stressors that increase the risk of developing significant mental health conditions. Similarly, people with serious mental health conditions are more likely to face challenges finding and keeping a job, which can lead to poverty. And this means they’re likely to face greater barriers to accessing mental health services and treatment.

People with mental health conditions are incarcerated in disproportionate numbers, often for nonviolent, minor offenses, like disorderly conduct, loitering, and trespassing. In the absence of community-based treatment services, local jails have become de facto mental health institutions44 percent of people in jail have a history of mental illness, according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Justice. But behind bars, resources and services are sorely lacking.

Incarceration is a far cry from an appropriate or adequate response. Communities need to invest in services, including civilian-led crisis response programs, which are better equipped to respond safely and effectively to people in crisis.

Criminalizing people experiencing poverty, homelessness, and mental health conditions has only created more harm.

Our current spate of tactics—punishments, rather—only land people in greater debt and further entangled in the criminal legal system, which damages their job prospects and housing options going forward. We need to move away from our reliance on money bail, fines, and fees—as some states already have—and instead invest in community-driven solutions that meet people’s needs, including affordable housing and mental health services. These are real solutions.