Judicial process poses financial threat to low-income individuals

Story by Sasha Keenan.

Illustration by Luc Pham.

Illustration by Luc Pham.

COLUMBIA — Teddy Morris stands on the corner of Cherry and Ninth streets in Columbia holding a tattered sign that reads “homeless, hungry, anything helps, thank you, god bless.”

During the day, Morris has collected a small pile of small change from passersby. He said he was fined $150 earlier this year for first-degree trespassing while standing on a busy street asking for money. Then he received a second fine for failure to appear in court.

“How is that fair?” Morris said, shaking his head in frustration. He said he often feels unwanted.

“Poor people don’t have the resources to defend themselves,” said Angela Hirsch, community services director for the Central Missouri Community Action Center.

Low-income individuals are often crushed by the judicial process. Hirsch noted that an accumulation of fines for non-violent crimes could often inhibit a person’s ability to emerge from poverty.

Poorer citizens are unlikely to have the financial means to pay the fines imposed even for relatively minor misdemeanors, such as petty theft and trespassing. They are typically unable to hire an attorney, and free legal services are critically overburdened.

One in every four people in Columbia lives below the poverty line, which sits at $11,770 of annual income per family member, according to U.S. Census data.

The fine for petty theft, which is a Class A misdemeanor, can be $1,000. The penalty is the same for fraudulent use of a credit card or passing a bad check.

Lacking the resources to cover basic needs can push low-income individuals and families into tough situations when it comes to settling fines for non-violent crimes, MU law professor Frank Bowman said.

“It’s really a matter of ‘I pay my fine, or I pay for food and my children’s child support,’” Bowman said.

But low-income individuals are still responsible for their actions.

“Being poor doesn’t mean you don’t have to comply with the law,” he said.

If they do get into trouble, an attorney comes at a price. In some metropolitan areas, attorneys in some metropolitan areas.

These defendants often rely on the legal services of a public defender, who “fulfills the obligation of Sixth Amendment rights” by providing an attorney to those who are accused of crimes and can’t afford legal representation, said Michael Barrett, director of the Missouri State Public Defender System.

In an August 2014 article by the Associated Press, Barrett described the situation as “simply too many cases for even skilled practitioners to handle.”

He said that those who lack the resources to alleviate the consequences of a misdemeanor have potential to be trapped the criminal justice system.

“If a person is having a hard time paying their bills, I don’t understand the value of imposing excessive fees and fines,” Barrett said, “It keeps a person from getting back on their feet.”

According to an Eastern Michigan University study, the kinds of non-violent crimes committed in the United States are distinctly divided by income.

Those who commit white-collar crimes are generally socially elite, high-level executives. Those who commit non-violent street crimes are generally in low-income situations.

“White-collar crimes are destructive to our society; however, it would appear that the majority of concerns about criminal activity are centered on street criminals because their damaging effect is more direct and visible,” the study’s authors reported.

Since people of means often commit white-collar crime, which includes fraud, embezzlement, money laundering and insider trading, they have access to expensive legal representation. Non-violent street criminals often do not.

“The criminal justice system will disadvantage the poor,” Bowman said.

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