Fighting Judgment: Being Poor Isn’t a Crime

POST BY Julia Henshaw West Michigan Legal & Program Associate
May 30, 2014

When the rights of one group are threatened by government intrusion, all our rights are in peril.

Freedom in America is, and always has been the responsibility of the people. And freedom in America is for everyone, even people whose clothes are in tatters.

As reported recently on NPR’s All Things Considered, poor people in Michigan are facing a system that makes having no money into a crime.

Poor people face restrictive laws that try to take away their voices and freedoms, creating an inescapable maze trapping them in the criminal justice system. 

Being Poor in Public

The last time we checked, holding signs isn't illegal in the United States. It’s free speech.

Happily, a judge agreed with us that folks who live in poverty have the right to stand on the street with a sign that asks for assistance, rejecting a ban on panhandling across the state

That's not where the story ends, though. Cities across Michigan have begun to re-write their ordinances in the hopes of finding a way around the state statute to remove what one attorney referred to as the “visual clutter” of the homeless. 

The objections are loud and strong: “I don’t feel safe”, “What are they going to use the money for?” “Look at him! I don’t want to talk to him.” “It’s a safety hazard for them to be on the sidewalk with their sign!”

Tactics like these seem to say that while free speech is fine for protesters and clean-cut firemen asking for money, places like Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Ann Arbor, and Warren don't want a continual reminder that poverty exists in their cities.

Below the surface of these comments lurks a more sinister message: poverty is shameful, dirty, and unfamiliar to those in power. 

As members of a democracy, we can't just avoid the issue of poverty. We can't forget that these “other” folks are Americans. They are us. We are them. We’re all in the same category, protected under the law, and granted the same rights.

In Grand Rapids, you can once again see the signs asking for help. While some in power might see this as unattractive, any fan of civil liberties will recognize this as people who have their basic right to freedom of speech again, who have been given back their voice. 

Stephen's Story

Poor people haven't just had their free speech rights threatened in Michigan, but their very freedom. We've seen poor people continually and systematically subjected to excessive bail, fines, and cruel and unusual punishment across the state.

Additional charges are heaped on people without money, once in the system. It is, in essence, a double sentence.

Exorbitant fines and fees in the form of paying the costs of their own trials and sentences, fees for court-appointed attorneys, extra charges for parole officers, and fees charged to join work crews are extracted from the very poorest among us.

Can't pay these fines? They face jail time and then are charged for their room and board.

Stephen Papa knows that story very well. A few months ago, the homeless veteran found himself with court fines and fees upwards of $2600.

With only $25 in his pocket, he was told that he had to pay $50 due on the day of court date. He had recently begun working a new job, and hoped that the judge would see that he was close to piecing together some hope for a path out of the steep fines and fees. Holding on to that fragile hope, Mr. Papa told the Judge that if he could pay $25 instead of $50 that day, he would be able to pay off his debt with he earnings from his new job. 

You can hear the hope in his voice in recordings of the court proceedings that day:

“I’ve been trying – I tried really hard to get this job and I’m – I’d really like to keep it, and if it’s okay with the Court if I could just pay the $25.00 and, then, I’m just – I’m willing to pay instead of $50 a month, $50 a week to help get this debt paid off…” 

Sadly, the judge didn't agree. Since Mr. Papa didn’t have the $25, he was placed in jail, and lost his job. So much for hope.

We are living in an era of modern day debtor’s prison, and it is a direct violation of the 8th Amendment.

We at the ACLU of Michigan have decided enough is enough. We’re working hard to fight this blatant violation of basic freedoms, guaranteed in the 8th Amendment.

We support and defend folks like Mr. Papa, who is working hard to conquer the charges stacked against him, illegally imposed. That is nothing short of a worthy fight, because after all, we’re all Americans.

Watch "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? Challenging Michigan's Anti-Begging Ordinance"
Federal Appeals Court Strikes Down Michigan’s Anti-Begging Statute as Unconstitutional

By Julia Henshaw, West Michigan Legal & Program Associate

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