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Nickels and Dimes: The Criminalization of Rhode Island’s Poor


Court debt and bus fares are nothing more than a mild annoyance for most Rhode Islanders: a transaction accepted without second thought when taking the bus downtown or paying off a traffic ticket incurred on Waterman Street. But for the estimated 34 percent of Providence residents who live under the poverty line, these small fees have enormous ramifications. On issues ranging from housing to the judicial system, state policies place an undue burden on Rhode Island’s poorest residents, further burdening those who already struggle to pay rent or buy groceries. From the bus fare increases that solely target elderly and disabled passengers to court fines and cash bail fees, Rhode Island has quietly been pushed to the forefront of legal and legislative battles over the criminalization of poverty in the United States. These practices will continue to grow unheeded unless strong, continual efforts are made to challenge this regressive agenda seen at the municipal and state level.

Rhode Island’s battles reflect a wider nationwide trend: The United States has declared war on the poor. Since the beginning of the Reagan era, the erosion of the social safety net in the United States, coupled with draconian public policy and legislative decisions, has created an entrenched web of pitfalls and restrictions around poverty in American society. Much of this is due to the stigmatization of impoverished Americans. A Columbia University study showed that public opinion sharply deviated between the perceived “deserving poor” (such as the disabled) and an undeserving “underclass.” This notion of the “undeserving poor” has distinct racial undertones. For example, Aid for Dependent Families with Children ­­– the main form of cash assistance for low-income families until it was dismantled in 1996 – was called a “cesspool of fraud, waste, and abuse” after African-Americans joined the program. By evoking the racialized, pejorative term “welfare queen,” politicians have justified welfare cuts to such an extent that by 2014 only 23 percent of poor families received any type of cash assistance. Beyond benefits cuts, municipal governments and state legislatures discreetly passed laws that criminalized activities specifically associated with homelessness such as loitering in public parks, panhandling, and sleeping in vehicles. These laws are not only a misdirected attempt to address poverty, but actually are more costly to taxpayers: Cities spend, on average, $87 per day to jail a homeless person, but only $28 per day to provide them with shelter.

Worse, assuming that nationwide anti-poor sentiment will shield them from backlash, elected officials often vote to increase the cost of public services disproportionately used by low-income Americans in order to cut taxes. In extreme cases, local governments even use small fines and low-level violations to generate revenue. Notably, this tactic was used by law enforcement and elected officials in Ferguson, Missouri, a scheme uncovered by the infamous “Ferguson Report” released by the Department of Justice in the aftermath of the police shooting of Mike Brown. In Ferguson, these costs would often come at the expense of its poorest residents. One woman who was in and out of homelessness ended up paying over $1,000 and spending six nights in jail after illegally parking her car in 2007, triggering a cycle of debt-related incarceration all too familiar to America’s poorest.

Some methods of criminalizing the poor are far more subtle. For example, geographer Mike Davis studied how, in the late 1990s, cities such as Los Angeles developed public works projects designed to be specifically anti-homeless. Overhead sprinkler systems in city parks are timed to go off in the middle of the night and benches are constructed in a barrel shape to make sleeping impossible. In these cases, passing laws to criminalize sleeping in public is not even necessary, as design decisions have already rendered much of the city’s built environment inaccessible to the homeless.

Rhode Island is a poignant microcosm of the nationwide trend of poverty criminalization, recently becoming a staging ground for the debate surrounding the changing dynamics of the government’s role in the lives of poor and homeless Americans. Constitutionally dubious anti-panhandling legislation, which Providence was forced to abandon last year after threats of legal action from the Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU, has been reintroduced in suburban towns like Cranston and at the state level by both Democratic (H5210) and Republican (H5258) representatives. In the general assembly, these bills fine drivers and panhandlers between $75 and $500 dollars for “stopping to exchange items with persons outside a motor vehicle.” While this bill might threaten local drive-through restaurants, it will more urgently devastate the livelihoods of panhandlers. The reason behind the sudden proliferation of anti-poor ordinances, says Rhode Island outreach worker and homeless advocate Megan Smith, is simple: People who are genuinely uncomfortable with witnessing poverty tend to blame the wrong actors. “As panhandling has become more visible in places like Cranston and Warwick, it has gotten people involved who are not used to seeing such stark poverty. Yes, it’s upsetting to see someone who is panhandling,” Smith said, “but the reaction should not be upset with the individual who is doing it, but at the system which is not giving them a better option than panhandling to survive.” This sentiment is shared by advocates for homeless and impoverished Rhode Islanders, but is a hard sell to many in the general public who value self-sufficiency. The legislative proposals to fine panhandlers underscore just how deeply ingrained the notion of the “undeserving poor” has become in the public psyche. Even in a largely blue state like Rhode Island, this reality invites further stigmatization of low-income individuals.

Nevertheless, Rhode Island’s rash of recently proposed anti-panhandling legislation is just a small look into the undue financial burden pushed onto poor Rhode Islanders. In November 2015, students led by Providence College Professor Eric Hirsh conducted an informal survey of pedestrians in Kennedy Plaza to document police interaction for minor infractions. What they found was striking: while only around half of those surveyed were homeless, 95 percent of citations and 94 percent of arrests were experienced by homeless or formerly homeless individuals. Some respondents reported receiving citations for activities such as laying down, receiving free food, or even having a pet, all of which were (and remain) perfectly legal in Rhode Island. To this day, outreach workers in Providence witness this type of discrimination on a regular basis. “One example that sticks out in my mind,” says Megan Smith, recalling an incident from late 2016, “is a woman with severe mental illness – self-evident to anyone who engages with her – who was sitting on the steps of a building with a backpack full of empty beer cans.” Smith continued, “She was going to take them across the state line to get 5 cents a can, but the cop didn’t like her sitting on the stoop. Her bag was searched, illegally, and the officer found the cans and charged her with open container even though they were empty. She spent the night in jail.”

In cases like the one described by Smith, where police harassment leads to arrest and incarceration, poor defendants often end up in municipal court. Common citations range from anti-loitering ordinances to carrying an open container of alcohol. In Providence, after Mayor Jorge Elorza’s administration stopped enforcing its panhandling ban, police continued to cite a state-level “failure to move” ordinance as a way to criminalize homelessness and those who panhandled within the city limits. Using this dubious work-around, police continually harassed homeless people with the threat of arrest if they did not follow orders. Over the past few months, a visible result of this policy has been the forced relocation of Providence’s homeless population from downtown areas (specifically around Kennedy Plaza and Burnside Park) to Broad Street and the economically disadvantaged South Side of the city.

Economic power plays a consequential role in the criminalization of poverty in Rhode Island. “[Groups such as] the Providence Downtown Improvement District see poverty as bad for them economically and so want to make it invisible.” Smith explained, “They also have a lot of sway over the police. When we talk to the police about why they act the way they do, a lot of what they say is that they are responding to complaints of the businesses.” Another tangible result of this policy is an increasing number of low-income Rhode Islanders appearing each day at municipal court. Rhode Islanders often face an exploitative relationship with the state judicial system, with the court leveraging fines and fees from the pockets of the most vulnerable. By criminalizing poverty in this manner, the state profits from its poorest residents.

In Rhode Island, this system can lead to a cycle of debt-related incarceration. At each part of the criminal justice process, defendants are charged with court fees. In civil cases, for example, there are fees for filing ($150), execution ($50), and citations ($25), plus the $17.50 processing fee that goes to a software technology corporation. If an individual is continually rearrested for failure to pay court fees, they can be at risk of serving a brief period at the Adult Correction Institute (ACI) in lieu of paying these fees. For low-level infractions, which are tried in municipal court, fines upwards of $100 are a common punishment doled out to homeless and low-income Rhode Islanders for minor infractions. “It’s common for homeless individuals to have multiple unpaid fines outstanding,” says municipal court public defender James Crowley. “And these costs add up, leading to warrants, subsequent arrests, and sometimes short ACI sentences. The judges in the municipal court are always willing to set up payment plans: They don’t always appreciate that even seemingly small fines can be onerous for poor people, or that paying a court fine might not be the top priority in a homeless person’s life,” Crowley added.

While de jure debt related incarceration for indigent individuals was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Bearden v. Georgia (1983), judges still have tremendous discretion in deciding whether defendants refused to pay or simply could not afford the fees. As a result, many courts incarcerate low-income offenders who fail to show up at debt-related proceedings for “failure to appear in court,” regardless of their income status. This loophole is exploited frequently in Rhode Island. In 2015, approximately 1,556 adults (15 percent of the total number of commitments in municipal court) were arrested and committed to the Intake Center in Providence solely for failure to appear at a court payment date. Arrested debtors owed an average of $1,082 in court debts upon commitment, and they were predominantly low-income and non-violent misdemeanor offenders with a mixed history of debt payment compliance. Over half (58 percent) of those arrested had previously experienced debt-related incarceration, and 52 percent of these received food stamps which legally qualifies them for payment exemptions of court fees. Yet judges abated the court costs of just three percent of arrested debtors in 2015. As a result of this practice, poor Rhode Islanders arrested for misdemeanors such as failing to move or panhandling often face jail time even for crimes intended to be punishable only by fines. According to Smith, until the municipal court hired a public defender two years ago due to intense pressure from advocates, these defendants were sentenced to upwards of a month in jail for low-level offenses like failure to move without any form of legal counsel. Over the past two months, this problem has returned with the state’s refusal to pay the municipal court public defender. Until this situation is resolved, low-income defenders will continue to go to jail without legal counsel for low-level offenses.

Jail time for simple, low-level offenses has profoundly negative effects. Even for a brief period of time, incarceration can significantly jeopardize a person’s employment status or housing security, requiring some to skip out on their rent. In a law unique to the Ocean State, an individual can even get their driver’s license suspended for failure to pay fines and surcharges, inhibiting one’s ability to move freely around the state. While proposed legislation at the state level (H5187) requires municipal courts to provide counsel for all low-income defendants at risk of jail time for court debt, increasing representation is not the only solution. Tackling debt-related incarceration and the criminalization of homelessness and poverty boils down to the municipal codes that allow individuals to go to jail for low-level, nonviolent offenses in the first place. Some towns in the state are already on the right path. In Central Falls, city officials have prevented violations of “failure to comply” or anti-panhandling ordinances from leading to jail time. Furthermore, judicial discretion must be implemented to rethink court fines and fees in cases where defendants cannot pay. The law already stipulates that individuals on food stamps can be exempted from these superfluous fees, but with anti-panhandling legislation and other proposed measures, it is more important than ever to remain vigilant.

Finally, there is a larger narrative that the public must address. Americans must work to destigmatize poverty. According to a recent National Public Radio survey on Americans’ view of poverty, 48 percent of Americans see poverty as a result of “people not doing enough.” What most Americans don’t know is that an estimated 44 percent of the homeless population are employed on a full-time or part-time basis. In Rhode Island, 39 percent of the homeless or marginally housed are made up of families with children. The distance between perception and reality when it comes to impoverished Americans is striking and is reflected in discriminatory policy mechanisms that target the poor.

These next few months will be important for advocates wishing to address the criminalization of poverty in Rhode Island. Following a 5-4 vote on February 15 in which the Cranston City Council passed an anti-panhandling ordinance, the state legislature will vote on anti-panhandling bills over the next few months. At the same time, upstart activist groups such Signs of Providence are working to destigmatize homelessness and poverty in Rhode Island through a video campaign targeting legislators and the general public alike.

Uniquely entrenched legal mechanisms in Rhode Island have created a system where the state continually profits from and dismisses its poorest residents. Other residents, from students to lawyers, can work to change this reality for their neighbors; those who want to address systemic issues of injustice can begin by challenging the criminalization of poverty taking place in their own city.