Aug 6, 2018 / Criminal Justice

It’s Expensive to be Poor, and in Maryland, it’s also a Crime

Poverty, not crime, drags an astounding amount of Marylanders into the criminal justice system. Whether it be through debt, lack of access to resources, income volatility, or a combination of each, our poorest communities are caught in a cycle of poverty, race, and the criminal justice system that has plagued our state since its inception.

In 2015, the death of Freddie Gray revealed the community’s ever-growing unrest with the decades of divestment and over incarceration in Baltimore City, and statewide. The increased scrutiny, both national and local, shed light on the disparate impact that these policies and practices have on poor communities, especially communities of color.

In response to the community’s outcry, the Job Opportunities Task Force (JOTF) sought to understand which of Maryland’s laws served to criminalize poverty, and if so, to what extent. This deeper dive was also necessary to provide a comprehensive response to the community’s ills. Our report, “The Criminalization of Poverty: How to break the cycle through policy reform in Maryland,” was the result of our research and the necessity for systematic change became abundantly clear. Not only is Maryland criminalizing poverty in numerous ways, but specific policy reforms are also needed to address the disproportionate impact that these laws have on people of color and their communities.

The common pathways through which the poor are criminalized include racial profiling, civil asset forfeiture, motor vehicle laws, punitive child support collection tactics, and civil debts.

In our report, we address these issues, one-by-one, then provide policy recommendations to break this cycle. For example, for those who struggle to find stable employment, child support can become a vicious cycle of debt and imprisonment. In 2015, the state found that 4,642 individuals within a four zip-code radius in Baltimore City owed more than $30 million in back child support. Most of these individuals could not pay their child support orders because they earned less than $10,000 a year.

But this just cracks the surface. Our report also found that low-income individuals, particularly those of color, face disparate treatment and outcomes during their interactions with the criminal justice system. For example, the state’s overreliance on cash bail as a means to ensure public safety creates a two-tiered system of justice that stacks the deck against those who cannot afford to buy their freedom.

And finally, our report discusses the collateral consequences of a criminal record, which are often times never-ending for Maryland’s returning citizens who are seeking stable employment. Currently, Maryland’s policies make it nearly impossible for this qualified, yet untapped, workforce to further their education, get an occupational license, or access resources needed to maintain their employment.

Each legislative session, JOTF advocates for reform in each of these areas with the intent of securing better jobs, income, and access for Maryland’s low-wage workers. In addition, we support comprehensive reforms that address the systematic barriers that unduly shut some Marylanders out. For nearly twenty years, JOTF has aggressively advocated to help low-wage workers advance to high-wage jobs. Now, with the publishing of this report, we have a clear roadmap for decades to come on how to break Maryland’s cycle of criminalizing poverty.

By: Nikki Thompson