D.O.J. Orders Stop to Criminalizing Homelessness and Poverty

No-one in their right mind wants to be poor or homeless, so it is always curious why many Americans are cruel and inhumane toward the very least fortunate among us. It is a safe bet that if there were enough living-wage jobs, the number of Americans stuck in poverty and without a place to live would be far less. Whatever the reason a person is in economic despair and lacks a safe place to live, there is no reason whatsoever to criminalize them or their families for being poor or homeless.

On Monday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch issued a stern order to state court officials to stop, forthwith, targeting poor and homeless people and throwing them in jail for being too poor to pay fines for the crime of being too poor to have a place to live. In repeating what President Obama said about a year ago, the Justice Department reminded the state courts that the criminalizing poverty and homelessness is patently unconstitutional, and took special exception to sending the poor to debtors prison; a practice that A.G. Loretta Lynch said “was entirely profit motivated and unusually burdensome on the poor.”

In the strongly worded letter to court chief justices and administrators, the head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, Vanita Gupta and Lisa Foster of the Office for Access to Justice leveled some harsh criticism against state judicial and law enforcement officials for arresting and jailing the poor as a revenue generating source. The letter said in part,

In addition to being unlawful, to the extent that these practices are geared not toward addressing public safety, but rather toward raising revenue, they cast doubt on the impartiality of the tribunal and erode trust between local governments and their constituents.”

The DOJ got involved after finding that the justice system in Ferguson Missouri “consistently set maximizing revenue as the priority” in arresting and fining the poor to “trap those individuals in a perpetual cycle of poverty.” Gupta and Foster continued that, like in Ferguson, law enforcement and courts nationwide are out of line in forcing “poor individuals into escalating debt, to lose their jobs, face unnecessary and repeated incarceration despite posing no danger to the community; and become trapped in inescapable cycles of poverty.”

Right on cue and concurrent with the DOJ order, there was a civil rights lawsuit filed in federal court in Los Angeles accusing the city of endangering homeless people’s lives by seizing and destroying their tents, bedding, and worldly possessions during mass arrests. After imprisoning the homeless, the city waited to release them until the middle of the night with no shelter or belongings. The suit in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles rightly claims the city was deliberately targeting the poor and homeless as part of a well-devised campaign to criminalize poverty and homelessness to generate revenue; revenue from people too poor to afford shelter.

It was about a year-and-a-half ago that the United Nations Human Rights Commission (HRC) issued an official condemnation of America’s treatment of its poor and homeless population. The HRC labeled America’s treatment of its poor and homeless, millions whom are veterans, “cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment.” The U.N. HRC also reminded the U.S. that it was guilty of “a violation of America’s obligation to adhere to international human rights treaties.” The human rights treaties, by the way, were initiated, championed, and pushed on the rest of the world by America.

That condemnation prompted President Obama to take action and he dutifully attempted to correct the outrage and force communities to halt the “cruel, inhumane, and degrading” treatment of people who are living in poverty. He has, by the way, attempted to reduce the number of Americans living in poverty or homelessness by calling for job creation and higher wages for about 7 years, but Republicans were too busy attacking women’s healthcare and autonomy as human beings to ever do anything to address poverty and homeless.

The Obama Administration has argued that vile local ordinances criminalizing Americans for being too poor to afford shelter is unconstitutional. The Administration filed a brief in federal court arguing that criminalization violates the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment. It also violates most states’ laws and two Supreme Court rulings banning debtor’s prisons and illegally seizing and disposing of every last possession of the homeless.

Still, despite a U.N. condemnation, two Supreme Court rulings, and a federal filing by the Obama Administration, states across America are still seizing homeless people’s worldly belongings, throwing them in jail, and levying exorbitant fines as a revenue producing ploy. Since punishing the poor for being poor has continued unabated, the Department of Justice did its job to protect Americans civil rights; issued a stark warning to the states to stop being barbaric and cruel to Americans for profit.

As Attorney General Loretta Lynch stated, “The consequences of the criminalization of poverty are not only harmful – they are far-reaching. They not only affect an individual’s ability to support their family, but also contribute to an erosion of our faith in government.” The nasty criminalization of poverty, and homelessness, possibly does erode faith in government, but more than that it erodes what little faith many Americans have in what seems to be lacking most in America; humanity.

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