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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

Pay Up, Or Go To Jail? The Criminalization Of Poverty


If someone winds up in jail because an unpaid traffic ticket leads to a suspended license and then an arrest warrant, does that mean being poor is, in one sense, a crime? Georgetown law professor Peter Edelman explores the topic in his new book, and on a recent episode of Think.

  Interview Highlights: Peter Edelman…

…on why citations have gotten more expensive: “The courts around the country started making the fines bigger and bigger and adding to them so-called fees, but they were just more money for one thing or another. You know, maybe the courthouse library. That was a way to get revenue to run the courts and in many cases to run whole cities other kinds of things that have nothing to do with the courts, and so it's become a very big deal and business. Something on the order of 10 million people at any given time owe a lot of money that they can't pay.”

…on what happens when someone just can’t pay the fine: “The big one is taking away people's drivers licenses and that really works well because people have to drive and so they take a chance and they get hit again. And what they owe as a consequence of being hit one time after another, there are more tickets for that, but also there's interest and there's other fees and so on and so on and it just mounts. I wrote about a truck driver in Los Angeles who, he needed his truck because that’s what he does. And he lost that, and in fact he lost his wife and he lost his house, and it just went up and up and up and he owed $5,000 before finally he got some help and got out from it, but it was a long, long time.”

…on whether courts distinguish between ‘can’t pay’ and ‘won’t pay’ child support: “Obviously we all agree, if somebody doesn't pay the child support and they can, they're the worst. They're bottom feeders. If they can pay, they should go to jail. Then you have the person who can't, and it just makes it worse to throw them in jail. They can't do anything about finding the money, if you throw them in jail and you can't possibly pay. So that's a really difficult thing that we have, and we have to be very careful about it, because we really should collect every time we can.”

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.