The Criminalization of Poverty in Tennessee

Decriminalize poverty tenn sq


When people are arrested and charged for activities they are forced to engage in to survive—such as driving without a license or sleeping outside—poverty becomes criminalized. In these cases, being poor is essentially made illegal. In collaboration with Free Hearts—an organization led by formerly incarcerated women—Vera researchers explain how poverty has been criminalized across Tennessee and what this means for people who live in communities in the state. The effects of the criminalization of poverty are compounded through the collection of money bail; additional fines, fees, and costs; and barriers to housing, transportation, education, and employment. With deep dives into several counties across Tennessee, the report shows how incarceration and policing are related to other systems that both punish and exacerbate poverty in the state. The report outlines actionable steps that can be taken now to build toward a vision of safety that includes all Tennesseans.

Key Takeaway

People who have been directly impacted by criminalization have firsthand knowledge of both the harms of incarceration and the needs of the most vulnerable members of their communities. Integrating data analysis, ethnography, and survey data, this report highlights how incarceration and criminalization affect communities across urban and rural Tennessee.

Publication Highlights

  • With case studies from Hamblen, ​​Weakley, Sullivan, and Wilson counties, the report shows how criminalization intersects with disparities in housing, transportation, and social services, disproportionately impacting Black people, women, and children.

  • The report details the results of the Decriminalize Poverty survey, administered by Free Hearts organizers who canvassed thousands of people across the state about their lived experiences of poverty and criminalization.

  • By choosing criminalization and incarceration as the near-exclusive solution for social problems, local governments in Tennessee have enabled private bail and probation companies to extract revenue from the state’s poorest residents.

Key Facts