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Crime and Poverty

by Carl C. Holmes

 Great debate has taken place in the past few years about the decrease in crime statistics. Some say that crime is down because of "three strike" laws and greatly enhanced prison terms. Others say that crime is down because of a simple change in demographics. Whatever the argument, hard evidence suggests our society is solving its "crime problem" by locking up poor people in alarming numbers.

It has been said that a civilized society is best measured by how it treats the poor. If such is the case, we Americans are abject failures. Nationwide over 20% of our children live in poverty. In Los Angeles 30% of all children are poor.

For these impoverished children, death is 1.5 to 3 times more likely than for their affluent counterparts. They are 2.7 times more likely to suffer stunted growth, and twice as likely to suffer serious physical or mental disabilities. For ages 3 and older, poor children are likely to score between 11-25 percentiles lower on achievement tests. If that’s not enough, the level of illiteracy among our poor is a national disgrace.

What produces these horrible effects of poverty? Is it lack of family bonds? Low IQs, lack of appropriate parenting? According to the Children Defense Fund, which has collected and studied this data for over a decade: "Recent academic studies demonstrate that the effects of poverty cannot be explained away as mere side effects of single parenthood, race, parents low IQ’s or lack of education." To the contrary, poverty itself spawns this waste and desolation.

If poverty were a disease it would be the most insidious, devastating, and life threatening disease that Americans suffer. The poor suffer not just economically, but they also suffer lack of opportunity, lack of education, lack of health care, and significantly more violence than others better situated in the community. They suffer higher disease rates, death rates and imprisonment than their affluent brethren. They are imprisoned at much higher rates and they are executed for capital crimes more often than any other group. In fact, they are almost the exclusive recipients of the death penalty.

And though white Americans constitute the majority of the impoverished population, minorities are likely to be over represented in this population. Though it is true that minority status in this country will not necessarily make you poor, if there were a formula for a "poor quotient," minority status would be the heaviest contributor. Historically, this has been true for almost every minority in America and includes African Americans, Italian Americans, Jewish Americans, Irish Americans, Asian Americans, and Latino Americans.

Unfortunately, Census data strongly supports the idea that racial and ethnic status are connected with poverty. According to U.S. Census figures in 1997:

20.5 percent of all children under age 18 were poor

11.1 percent of White children were poor

39.9 percent of Black children were poor

40.3 percent of Hispanic children were poor and

19.5 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander children were poor

If poor people are more likely to commit crime, and if minorities are more likely to be poor, are they also more likely to commit crime? Deductive reasoning would say so. Data produced by prosecutors tends to confirm this notion. This is another of the cruel and devastating effects of poverty.

In Washington D.C. and Los Angeles more than 30% of young black men are in jail, on probation, or on parole for the commission of crime. The vast majority of these young men are poor. African American and Hispanic communities have understandably become alarmed. Concerned community leaders complain that entire generations of young minority men are being put at risk by incarceration.

There is good reason to fear that minority men are severely at risk in the criminal justice system. 71% of all "3 strike" offenders in California prisons are African Americans or Latino Americans. What is worse, these men are all serving 25 to life sentences. Unbelievably, many of these men are serving these life sentences for petty theft and minor drug offenses. Offenses such as these are common among the poor. So common in fact that minority people suffer imprisonment wildly disproportional to their numbers in the general population.

For example, while previous studies have shown that African Americans and white Americans use drugs at about the same rate, African Americans are charged at nearly five times the rate of whites, and in "3 strikes" cases at 17 times the rates of whites in Los Angeles.

Alex Schiraldi, Director of the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice made this astute and somewhat caustic observation about the disproportionate prosecution of African Americans and other minorities for drug use:

"If you sent the police into white neighborhoods with the same concentration, you would draw a much different conclusion".."I am not accusing judges or District Attorneys of being Ku Klux Klan members…I am talking about a subtler form of institutional racism. And the difference to me is that if four in 10 young white men were under the control of the criminal justice system, we could not be passing "three strikes" laws or building more prisons, we would be funding education, jobs and drug treatment."

Minorities are treated differently in the courts. They are viewed with suspicion, they are held in custody longer, they are presumed guilty, their defense is poorly funded compared to the prosecution, and they are often treated abusively by the people who are charged with enforcing our laws.

In August and September of 1993 a survey was conducted by a private consulting firm which had been commissioned by the California Judicial Council’s Advisory Committee on Racial and ethnic bias in the Courts …a committee appointed by Chief Justice Malcom Lucas. Here are some of the findings:

In a survey of 1,338 members of the public on a scale of 1-10 for "fairness," the public rated the California courts at 5.3. In the same survey Blacks gave the courts a 4.0 rating for fairness. Strong majorities of Blacks, Indians, and Hispanics, felt that a minority defendant will be treated more harshly than a white defendant for a crime against a white victim.

But of 828 judges, lawyers and court employees, lawyers gave the courts only a 3.5 rating in fairness to minorities. More than 4/5ths of the judges in the same survey were white and they gave themselves a 7.7 rating on fairness.

In this same survey, lawyers were more than twice as likely as judges to agree with statements that minority lawyers are often treated as second-class professionals by judges; that judges tend to favor the prosecutor over the public defender in cases involving minority defendants, and that judges and prosecutors are members of an "old boy" network that excludes minorities.

Even though we are the most affluent country in the world, we continue to commit a greater proportion of our citizens to prison than any other civilized country. The vast majority of these people are poor.

In the past several decades we have increased punishment for hundreds of crimes. We increased punishments for drug use, theft, burglary, robbery, rape, and car jacking. You name the behavior. We increased the punishment.

We enacted new laws; 3 strike laws, one-strike laws, and career criminal laws. For good measure, we increased the number of crimes allowing life sentences and death penalties. We became punishment delirious. We doubled the number of people in prison but did very little to stop serious crime. And who are the people going to jail for these newly enhanced crimes? You have seen the data. Poor people are going to jail.

If crime is on the decrease, someone neglected to talk to the caretakers of our prison system. Prison population in California is about 160,000 and is over twice the prison population in 1987. Most of these inmates are poor minorities and whites.

So, even though it is very clear that our criminal justice system is broken, and many within the system have lost confidence in it, we keep chasing the same solutions. More punishment for longer terms seems to be our only response. Why do we persist in addressing the symptoms rather than the causes? I believe because we have sufficiently isolated the poor who are not like "us", and sufficiently demeaned them, that we have become indifferent to their plight. It is a matter of insensitivity and arrogance. It is our arrogance. We are more concerned about our status, our houses, our cars and our vacations than we are about taking care of each other.

Our unwillingness or inability to educate ourselves about poverty and do something about it is astounding. Our failure in this regard, may ultimately be very destructive to our democracy. There is already a perception in this country that giving up a few Constitutional rights is a fair exchange for personal safety.

There are other less drastic solutions however; solutions which do not exact increasingly severe jail sentences, solutions that do not further isolate poor minorities, but solutions which reach the causes of poverty and crime.

60’s icon, Angela Davis, noting the alarming rates of imprisonment of young black men, and the need for new solutions said this; "Prison should not be the catch all solution to all of the social problems that we have from mental illness to homelessness, to lack of health care, to the lack of education....We’re saying we need different kinds of institutions. We need drug programs that are accessible from the street and that are free. We need better schools. We need schools that don’t look and function like prisons."

Ms. Davis is on the right track. We know drug courts work. In countless communities across the country, drug users are being rehabilitated. We know feeding pre-school children works. We know that education and health care make a difference.

So, before we destroy ourselves in our quest for personal safety and protection from street violence, we should reflect on this observation by Robert Kennedy:

" There is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions: indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skins have different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter."

We as lawyers need to challenge indifference, the poison of racism, and the devastation of poverty. We have a unique opportunity to refocus our society on these issues. We need to insist on meaningful dialogue on the important issues relating to poverty and its effects. We need to challenge prosecutors, judges and legislators to find new solutions. We need to challenge ourselves.

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