It's a crime to be poor...

Despite the fact that debtors prisons have been outlawed for more than a century, it's still effectively a crime to be poor in our country. According to a stunning new report called “The Poor Get Prison,” the Justice System is being used as a weapon against the poor in municipalities all over our nation.

That study was co-authored by Karen Dolan and Jodi L. Carr on behalf of the Institute for Policy Studies, and it breaks down the various ways that Americans are being punished for being poor.

In addition to the obvious criminalization of poverty, like fining the homeless for being homeless, cities and counties throughout our country have set up a vicious cycle of charging exorbitant fees for small infractions and then jailing people who can't afford those fines.

By turning many petty crimes, like drinking from an open alcohol container, into civil infractions, cities and towns set the poor up to fail and end up behind bars. A $100 dollar ticket can easily turn into probation for failure to pay fines, which snowballs when probationers then fail to pay so-called “supervision fees,” and suddenly someone ends up in a modern-day debtors prison.

Not only is this whole process unconstitutional, it doesn't make a lick of sense. Throwing someone in jail over unpaid fines means that they can't work, and they can't make any money. It also means that instead of a $100 fine being lost to the city or county, taxpayers are now on the hook for the cost of putting someone behind bars.

In the introduction to “The Poor Get Prison” report, one of the authors wrote, “In the last ten years, it has become apparent that being poor is in itself a crime in many cities and counties, and that it is a crime punished by further impoverishment.”

Debtors prisons were outlawed long ago because they are inhumane and ineffective, and it's time to end the criminalization of poverty once and for all.


ddanl's picture
ddanl 8 years 4 weeks ago

Thom, can we agree to a need for Transparency? there is NO longer a 'justice' System, it should be named; the JAIL System, because, if you call it a 'Prison' or 'Penal' System, somehow CRIES out, We Have Authority"

so let's just call this, what it really IS; the JAIl/FINE iNDUSTRY FOR SLAVE CONTROL

mathboy's picture
mathboy 8 years 4 weeks ago

John Oliver's segments on issues like this have been amazing. I'd love to see all the show hosts that care about these things join forces somehow.

patrick H.T. paine's picture
patrick H.T. paine 8 years 4 weeks ago

Where are the common law and equity courts?

The significance of THIS question continues to elude you. ( actually, there are a number of options regarding WHAT precisely your "problem" is......clearly, you seem to have bought into your own hype.......but to imagine that your "smarminess" is a sufficient mask for your self centered mediocrity and your intellectual cowardice or that it is "sustainable" is quite foolish.)

Did you know ( rhetorical?) that both common law and equity require that in order for crime to have been commited, there must be either a victim or that evidence of harm or damage must exist?

Did you know ( rhetorical?) those "rights" in the "bill of same", are rights in "common law and equity", and if there are no courts available which operate in accordance with the "rules of evidence and procedure" of "common law and equity", that maybe you have no rights?

How is it that someone who...."speaks with the straight talking clarity and brilliance of a modern day Tom Paine as he exposes".......whatever it is YOU imagine you are "exposing"........has totally missed......the abscence of two of the four "available" jurisdictions in the Constitution........while presenting yourself as any kind of "intellect" at all? ( definitely rhetorical!!!!!! )

I had hoped that you would get better.......that you could LEARN, that you would adapt....but you're just a "smarmy" pretender........and the sooner you are gone, the better........because you are not a "solution" are THE PROBLEM.

( share this link......end the distraction that is Thom Hartmann.)

JasonG1970's picture
JasonG1970 8 years 4 weeks ago

Great review and commentary ... I'm going to promote this book. I went through it all, arrested once for some threatening emails to my Dad (stepdad, but only Dad for life). Got three weeks of a month sentence. Was amazed that there were payments that had to be made to pay for your probation "services", and it was indeed a misdemeanor to not pay them, and the court fees. Granted it wasn't much, and my gf paid them for me so as to not have to worry. I think it was like $300 total in Seattle, WA. But the plea agreement I agreed to in Court two days after being arrested was for 2 years probation, with a no leaving WA state stipulation, or a move for a legit job, or to move in with a relative maybe for financial reasons, but it had to be approved. When I got out I had 48 hours toreport to my pb officer, so I went straight there to get it over with, and he had 5 years probation, a mental health eval, and submitting to random UA's, and alcohol was a violation. First time I'd ever heard of this for sure. I also had to report to him, every 2-3-month intervals, where they could UA me, but never did. But just having to go to the Courthouse, and all the cops, and strange offices, and lockups, and miltary grade defense system against anyone shotting them or whatever, Like a 24 hr. gas station in a big city's bad area. But even more seemingly defended with 4 ft. thick concrete walls, and all the bauhaus architecture, to seem imposingly the establishment. But I did get called up on a UA out of the blue at a different location and failed it for weed and booze. ( I have a problem, it's true. As soon as I get back from Jazzfest and seeing New orleans for the first time, I'm back in AA full time and not touching the stuff.) But anyway, it's up to the probation officer to interpret things and their valuation as a breach of the terms of probation, in which I was lucky and I think my pb officer could see that I was well educated and had never been arrested before (which doesn't matter as much as you think.) But his job ultimately is to play both good and bad cop, and keep yu feeling threatened obviously to diminish repeat offenses. My problem is I had no idea you could get in that much trouble, and was blind drunk when I wrote those emails, and the tiny premonition or suspicion that they could be intercepted and used as automatic black and white evidence, which I wasn't too sure how all that worked, now I know for sure. But my Dad forwarded them to the police. Genius I am. You're definitely completely at the mercy of the Court, and if you don't have any money or kinder wealthier friends. You're fucked. Because three weeks in jail will cost you your job, in my case my place to live. And the $6 grand that my friend paid to a lawyer, didn't do a dman thing, and she was useless shit talking insulting the whole time. But I swear it's true that having an good lawyer gives you credit to the Court that you have money, and are therefore less of a threat to society? IDK. Remember, 'Affluenza'? Wtf was really going on there? Anyway headed to the dinner and jazz bars. I hate having to live in a society with so many obvious hipocracies that seemingly the good people of America, the majority can't do anything about it. I'm from Louisville, KY and I have strong suspisions of corruption in the criminal judicial system. I've worked at the PD office here in Seattle, and for criminal defense cases in Louisville. And have a few "freinds" in the field. Arrogant scrupulous people for the most part. Feeling above the law, and knowing you can't do much for your client anyways, only caring about the money, are the norm from what I've seen. Very few judges I've met are as cool or fair, or transparent seeming as any we see on tv. There usually very secretive, authoritatively dismissive of anything accept for they believe or have ordered. And, yes, it's perfectly within the Courts right to change a plea agreement after one has been offerend and agreed to in a hearing or court date. And Dear fucking God what a charade and waste of fucking time and money the whole thing is too. Over usually very minor bullshit. Cheers. You tube some Professor Longhair and have a cold one.

Hephaestus's picture
Hephaestus 8 years 4 weeks ago


Patrick you are incomprehensible


Hephaestus's picture
Hephaestus 8 years 4 weeks ago

Wake up America!!!

You are one sad country still believing your CIA world wide bullying, paranoid FBI nationwide crooks, bought and paid for politicains by corporate lobbyists and their huge money largese in support of profit,,,

Is this OKAY!

Not to mention the irrartional multiple war fronts for hawks that support industrial / miltary psychopaths... voted in by?

Not to mention the deap seated fear of taking care of the sick and disabled (bloody appalling)... voted in by?

Just the beginning really!

Can anybody there see this???

delster's picture
delster 8 years 4 weeks ago

In an article "From The Wilderness" Micheal C Ruppert made a couple of points I'm inclined to agree with. First we need debt forgiveness for everyone, and we need to get rid of compound interest. Both ideas are based on unlimited industrialized growth with finite resources. Next we need desperately to localize food production and clean up our water supply.

Patrick Doran's picture
Patrick Doran 8 years 4 weeks ago

I have been trying to get a message to Thom for more than a year now; and now with Bernie Sanders running, it is up to you who will read this let Thom know that I (and the wife) were conservative UNTIL BERNIE DECIDED TO OFFER HIS SERVICES AS PRESIDENT TO THIS U.S.A. of ours..

Now, we know that in the big scheme of things we are on the lower end of the contributor scale...But as immigrants to this country (Ireland and Chile) I/we have a little over $50k. "in Perks", that Bernie, Free Speech T.V, K.P.F.K (Public Radio in our Los Angeles, Riverside County Ca. area) and Shriners Hospital for children... are welcome to, with a single condition that Thom and/or Bernie accept a "Center space of Honor" in one (and/or two) or our 27 unit "Family and Friend's" memorial sites in the South/West of Ireland.......(A section of Ireland I have heard Thom describe as Beautiful) And please take note, these memorial sites are not "For Sale" items.... The facts of which I/we will disscuss with Thom, Bernie and/or their authorized supporters.....

Readers please note: This posting was inspired by the news of this day; in that, those who may be responsible for the death of Mr. Gray, resulting in all of the destruction that followed in the city of Baltimore; if those (although unlawful) acts are not just related to the conduct of Police/Sheriffs and/or District Attorneys in Baltimore...... And, anyone thinking so? should have their "donkey" put into the hands of these "Sons of Bachelors" (or S.O.B's if you like) here in Riverside Ca. Only then would they know what real County Governmental Corruption means.... The wife and I know...... We ask then to those of you reading this, You can contact us at Get the nightmare facts...

UNC Tarheels's picture
UNC Tarheels 8 years 4 weeks ago

I have yet to find out why in Lord Buddha's name that rioters burn down their own neighbourhood. If jobs in the section of Baltimore are so hard to come by why would you burn down a $16 million dollar senior citizens apartment building and a CVS?

Aliceinwonderland's picture
Aliceinwonderland 8 years 4 weeks ago

Reply to #9: It's called a REVOLT, Tarheels. That's how Thom characterizes it anyhow. It's what people do when they've had enough and the justice system isn't serving them. When they protest peacefully, they are simply ignored, so they revolt. It's the final option when all else has failed. That's "why in Buddha's name". Cheers!

Aliceinwonderland's picture
Aliceinwonderland 8 years 4 weeks ago

Thom- Of course it makes no sense from our point of view, having poor foks rot in prison over unpaid bogus, unconstitutional fees & fines. Creates a trap, as they can’t pay the fines while incarcerated! Which is a slam-dunk for the for-profit prison “industry”! Let’s not forget that. Under corporate fascism, our sole purpose for being alive is to be a cash cow for someone. If we aren’t useful as worker bees anymore, we can always generate profits for the prison “industry”, stuck in debtors’ dungeon indefinitely. I’ve heard and read that it costs at least sixty grand annually to keep someone locked up these days.

I think Mr. Fabian makes a good point about the middle class making its own bed, at least to a point. I vividly recall how lots of white middle class people where thinking back when Reagan became president... even in the liberal San Francisco Bay Area! I remember how it nauseated me. Never could stand the man.

Reagan sucked as governor of California. When he announced he was running for president, I saw nothing but trouble. And trouble is what we’ve got.

Reagan pushed at least some of the pebbles that started us on our avalanche ride towards fascism.

bioman 8 years 3 weeks ago

Common man theme song. We want our country back. Stop SHAFTA

nobodycalls's picture
nobodycalls 8 years 3 weeks ago

Communities such as Sioux City Iowa are now assisting apartment complexes and landlords to do background checks on people looking for an apartment . To make sure anyone who went to prison or got in trouble with the law ever are unable to get a place to live.

chuckle8's picture
chuckle8 8 years 3 weeks ago

Hephaetus -- You seem to be asking the question who voted them in? Among other things they were voted in by voting machines. Do you know that 20 million more people voted for the democrats in the senate than the republicans and 5 million more people voted for the democrats in the house? Yet, the republicans run both the house and the senate. Please do not be too harsh on the people.

chuckle8's picture
chuckle8 8 years 3 weeks ago

UNC Tarheels -- Why do you think they would burn down their neighborhoods? Do you think they are of a different species?

Of course, AIW told you why, but somehow I doubt if you can relate.

Mark J. Saulys's picture
Mark J. Saulys 8 years 3 weeks ago

UNC Tarheels, I think the people of that neighborhood might have felt that very few of them would ever be able to work at that CVS - or buy any of the consumer products within, felt exploited rather than helped by it.
Why the senior center? I don't know.
Much of this is going on because the poor are no longer useful, especially in the city. Industry used to be the tax base of the city. Now, with no industry, property taxes and fines are the tax and revenue bases. The poor can pay neither and, in addition to that, are not only no longer needed to work in factories but are a drain on revenue as they need social services. Thus the surplus population must be removed.

mathboy's picture
mathboy 8 years 3 weeks ago

Alice's analogy of us being worker bees is pretty apt. I've realized that police have been killing black people with the casualness that most people swat a fly or step on a spider.

mathboy's picture
mathboy 8 years 3 weeks ago

This compounding of fines sounds like an Eighth Amendment case. "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."

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