How the criminal justice system can be an ally in the decriminalization of poverty i

How the criminal justice system can be an ally in the decriminalization of poverty

The beginning of America’s criminalization of poverty

This nation has criminalized poverty from the very start. In the 16th and 17th centuries, some 800,000 people crossed the Atlantic Ocean to occupy the English Eastern Seaboard of North America, many arriving in Jamestown, Virginia. Among the 800,000 people, 500,000 were Europeans [this number included 55,000 convicts and POWs with about 52,000 of them arriving during the 18th century]; and 300,000 were enslaved Africans, many Africans arriving after 1680. ii Many of the colonial settlements, including Jamestown, used this free labor to work the profitable tobacco plantations. As the settlements like Jamestown prospered and the health of the colonists increased, many of the indentured servants, particularly those of European descent, outlived their servitude and gained their freedom. At that point, colonial leaders like those in Jamestown had to find another source of free labor. They turned to slavery.

They also began to criminalize poverty. The first judicial sentence that illustrates this was the punishment imposed on John Punch. In 1640, John Punch, James Gregory, and another indentured servant named Victor worked for a Virginia planter, Hugh Gwyn. They all ran away because of intolerably harsh treatment by the plantation owner.

Captured within a few days, they tasted freedom for only brief precious moments. They had all committed the same crime, but once they were under the court’s authority, their fates and punishments differed. The judge had all three whipped; but while the judge added only four years to the indenture terms of James and Victor, both white Europeans, John Punch, a black man, received a sentence of lifelong servitude.

John Punch is one of the first indentured servants on record to serve a sentence of slavery without the possibility of freedom. iii

In 1662, Virginia passed a law that said if an “Englishman” impregnates a “negro woman,” the child once born takes on the status of the mother; i.e., the child is also a slave. This was the start of Hereditary slavery. iv

The institution of slave labor systemically established poverty in the colonies destined to become the United States. Let us be clear: Race is not the cause of poverty, but racism is a fundamental contributing factor. Consider the 1654 Virginia law that allowed free black landowners to have slaves. To protect this inhumane institution, the creation of “slave patrols” occurred during this period, which is sadly one of the founding cornerstones of policing in America. These law enforcement policies and practices continued through the Jim Crow era and today, as documented by Michelle Alexander in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. v

The criminalization of poverty and what police can do to reverse it

As a state trooper in New York, I saw some of my colleagues, despite my objections, issue multiple equipment violation tickets to people who drove “disposable” cars. They would derisively call these individuals “welfare rats.” I would argue with them, saying they were forcing these individuals to choose between paying the ticket, paying to have the car repaired, and putting food on the table.

How do we change the nature of policing in America and its relationship with the poor, our youth, and communities of color?

We can begin with the recruiting process for police officers. When seeking candidates to serve on a police force, there are several factors to consider:

  • Are they from the community they will patrol?
  • Do they have direct experience with poverty?
  • Have they studied poverty’s negative impact on individuals and the community at large?

Once hired, the police recruits should receive police training that covers:

  • The negative impact of poverty on individuals and their communities
  • Causes of homelessness and how some policing policies worsen homelessness
  • Adverse childhood experiences
  • Cultural competency and implicit bias courses to address harmful stereotyping of the poor and people of color
  • Conflict resolution strategies

As these new police officers begin, we can turn our questions to the institutions:

  • Are the department’s enforcement policies and practices grounded in social justice and equity?
  • Has the police department engaged in authentic community policing practices?
  • Has the agency formed active partnerships with local schools, not just as resource officers?
  • Has the agency partnered with social service agencies, social justice groups, and other similar community-based organizations?

Local initiatives show how police agencies can help

Here in Charlotte, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department’s (CMPD) Community Engagement Program has several notable initiatives designed to help in fostering positive community relations, particularly in the under-resourced section of the city:

  • Juvenile Diversion Program: The CMPD gives diversion opportunities for first time juvenile offenders by allowing an alternative to arrest, while maintaining accountability for delinquent acts and providing right supports to redirect behavior. Youth ages 6-17 who commit lower level, misdemeanor offenses take part in up to 8 hours of interpersonal skills workshops designed to address specific areas of concern such as decision-making, risk taking, goal setting, conflict resolution, academic achievement, and substance abuse, as shown by an assessment tool. Parents/guardians of the referred youth must take part in a 2-hour workshop designed to help them in understanding and redirecting their child’s behavior. Participation is voluntary; but if the referred youth refuses to take part, the original charges may be filed against them.
  • The Envision Academy: The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD), led by Chief Kerr Putney, envisioned a program for youth that would introduce them to the many faces and facets that make-up Charlotte-Mecklenburg, exposing them to the many career possibilities and opportunities in our community while at the same time engaging them with police officers who would serve as their mentors. Generous support of the Hugh McColl Foundation and Bank of America created the CMPD’s Envision Academy. The Envision Academy provided participants with a generous scholarship and many hours of interaction with officers while increasing their community knowledge, exploring issues which affect the community, and creating a platform from which to envision a better future for themselves and Charlotte.
  • CMPD’s Community Empowerment Initiative has inaugurated a collaborative approach working with community-wide service providers, other governmental agencies, and community-based supports to achieve community-directed goals. It hopes this collaboration will mitigate the deficits in opportunity, skills, and resources some neighborhoods suffer; while still engaging in effective crime reduction activities. CMPD looks to help communities become empowered to realize optimal community outcomes. vi

In Albany, New York, community leaders, the mayor’s office, law enforcement officials, the district attorney’s office, and several judges embarked on some very progressive policing policies and programs.

In 2016, the Albany Police Department became the third agency in the nation to adopt Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. (Seattle, Washington, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, were first.) This innovative criminal justice program aimed at reducing low-level arrests, racial disparities, and recidivism. Officers can exercise discretion to divert offenders involved in low-level crimes such as shoplifting and marijuana possession to restorative justice programs.

The mayor and the police chief hired an expert in implicit bias to train the entire police force (sworn and unsworn personnel), and they offered this training to the city’s residents. vii

In 2016, the Albany County District Attorney’s Office announced the Clean Slate initiative, which addresses three stages: reclamation, restoration, and redemption. The first part of the initiative, “reclamation,” is a case resolution possibility for young adults aged 16-24, charged with certain nonviolent felonies. Community members sit on a “diversion board” and decide eligibility. Participants must accept accountability for their criminal wrongdoing, repair harm to any victimized party, and become contributing members of the community–without a felony criminal conviction or time served in state prison. viii

How can aha Process’s Tactical Communication help?

Tactical Communication provides police agencies with another tool to combat poverty and enhance equitable enforcement and safety for police and the citizens they serve. In New York’s capital region, Schenectady Bridges Out of Poverty has done a tremendous job of educating social service agencies, hospitals, and other institutions on the strategies and practices of aha! Process, a professional development company that works across all aspects of a community to address and combat the root causes of poverty. There have also been preliminary conversations about aha Process’s Tactical Communication for first responders based on the book by the same name by Jodi Pfarr. This training helps police in several meaningful ways:

  • Enhances their safety and the safety of citizens
  • Increases ability to retrieve critical information
  • Prevents miscommunication between police and citizens
  • Improves ability to control situations via understanding the hidden rules of different communities ix

During my 29 years in the New York State Police, I held many titles and ranks, but I chose as my favorite title one that underscored my policing philosophy: “peace officer,” someone engaged in social justice. As a road trooper, and as the statewide commander, I understood that a community could only be policed to the extent that it trusts the criminal justice system.

Stephen Covey says, “Change happens at the speed of trust.” We, as social justice advocates, must help police build trust by adopting fair and justice-centered policies and practices. Police departments can work to develop greater trust in the communities they serve through authentic and community policing practices in collaboration with the community itself. Police must work with community-based organizations, social service agencies, faith-based groups, and the educational system if they are to be allies in reducing poverty, which in turn will reduce community disorder.

iii Racial Equity Institute – REI Basic Workbook, page 33
iv ibid
v Alexander, Michelle (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press. ISBN 978-1-59558-103-7.