When Poverty is a Crime

When Poverty is a Crime

Well, sort of…

The mere act of being poor isn’t a crime; however, what money can’t get you may get you arrested. Read on:

In 1999, the Alabama Department of Public Health initiated legal action (litigations and arrests) against 41 sites for releasing raw sewage into the ground surface, despite repeated violation notices in an attempt to oblige wastewater management to meet minimum environmental and health standards. Many individuals, who could not afford to take remedial action, were arrested. They now have arrest records for not having been able to afford the costly remedy. More recently in 2008, following complaints from a neighbour, the Department of Public Health initiated steps towards the arrest of a 27-year-old single mother, who lived in a mobile home with her autistic child, for not maintaining her septic system according to applicable health standards. The septic system replacement cost was higher than her annual income of $12,000, and she did not have the means to access funding.

Source: United Nations Human Rights Council: Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation on her mission to the United States of America, Paragraph 21 (22 February-4 March 2011)


And see paragraph 56:

Up to 3.5 million people experience homelessness in the United States every year, and on any given night over 800,000 people are homeless. In some cities, homelessness is being increasingly criminalized. Criminalization includes fines, arrests and severance of social protection benefits or even access to employment. Local statutes prohibiting public urination and defecation – which can constitute a sexual offence in some cases –, while facially constitutional to protect public health, are often discriminatory in their effects. Such discrimination often occurs because such statutes are enforced against homeless individuals who often have no access to public restrooms and are given no alternatives. Furthermore, there is an increasing trend in local governments to limit opening hours or close entirely public restrooms. Such decisions are contrary to the need to create an enabling environment so homeless individuals can realize their rights to water and sanitation.

The UN report was referred to in very interesting article that starts with the following paragraph:

The United States has about five percent of the world’s population and houses around 25 percent of its prisoners. In large part, that’s the result of the “war on drugs” and long mandatory minimum sentences, but it also reflects America’s tendency to criminalize acts that other countries view as civil violations.

The article is, Land of the free? America has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, and can be accessed here:


Technical violations as culprits:

The law distinguishes malum in se and malum prohibitum crimes: the former essentially are crimes against the “people”, crimes that are evil and wrong and go against society (e.g. murder, rape, theft), and the latter are statutory violations. Strict liability attaches and the violation per se establishes guilt (i.e. violation = guilt). You do not have to have a “guilty mind” (mens rea) to incur criminal liability.

The “crimes” in paragraph 21 and some in paragraph 56 above are of the strict liability type.

Many are particularly egregious and warrant tough sanctions. For instance, some white collar crimes. But in a number of instances, the consequences are seemingly absurd.

For instance, many non-contact sex offenders face far stiffer penalties than offenders who commit contact sex offenses. For an excellent review, see Charles Patrick Ewing’s, Justice Perverted: Sex Offense Law, Psychology, and Public Policy:


Resulting in twisted outcomes that fits well with Ewing’s “Justice Perverted” thesis, was  California’s Three Strikes Law in which the third “strike”, the third offense that could result in a life sentence, could be a low-level felony conviction as small as shoplifting an inexpensive item like work gloves:


The law was changed recently. Proposition 36 that was approved on November 6, 2012 provided the following short-form summary: “Revises law to impose life sentence only when new felony conviction is serious or violent. May authorize re-sentencing if third strike conviction was not serious or violent.”

And the following long-form summary:

  • Revises the three strikes law to impose life sentence only when the new felony conviction is “serious or violent”.
  • Authorizes re-sentencing for offenders currently serving life sentences if their third strike conviction was not serious or violent and if the judge determines that the re-sentence does not pose unreasonable risk to public safety.
  • Continues to impose a life sentence penalty if the third strike conviction was for “certain non-serious, non-violent sex or drug offenses or involved firearm possession”.
  • Maintains the life sentence penalty for felons with “non-serious, non-violent third strike if prior convictions were for rape, murder, or child molestation.”


Federal prisons have been swelling over the past 15 years:

Since 1998, individuals arrested for drug crimes have constituted the largest portion of federal prison admissions, followed closely by those arrested for immigration and weapons-related offenses. Meanwhile, the CRS reports there has been a significant drop off in the number of inmates entering prison for violent or property-related crimes, which only made up about 4 percent and 11 percent of prison admissions in 2010.

A huge portion of those drug offenders are arrested for marijuana offenses, even though the substance – now legal in 18 states for medicinal use– has become increasingly mainstream. However, statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation reveal more people were arrested for marijuana possession than all violent crimes combined in 2011.


The growth is attributable to policy changes that have occurred since 1980:

  • increasing the number of federal offenses subject to mandatory minimum sentences
  • expanding the federal criminal code to make more crimes federal offenses
  • eliminating parole

Turning our attention to an area that should concern psychologists and the mental health profession, because of the sheer magnitude and diametrical opposition to the tenets of human rights: the mentally ill who are locked up:

The three largest mental health providers in the nation are the following jails: Cook County in Illinois, Los Angeles County and Rikers Island in New York.


See also, Inside The Nation’s Largest Mental Institution:

The largest mental institution in the country is actually a wing of a county jail. Known as Twin Towers, because of the design, the facility houses 1,400 mentally ill patients in one of its two identical hulking structures in downtown Los Angeles.


Lastly, albeit not technically criminals anymore, many sex offenders who are detained past completion of their criminal sentences remain incarcerated pending civil commitment proceedings.

Perhaps not too far-fetched down the road are the likes of movies Escape from New York and Escape from L.A. in which the Snake Plissken character is thrown into gigantic maximum security prisons in Manhattan and Los Angeles.

We need the room, no? After all, we all may be committing crimes…just not knowingly.

See The Overcriminalization of America: Are We All Criminals Now?:

Congress has been creating on average 55 new “crimes” per year, bringing the total number of federal crimes on the books to more than 5,000, with as many as 300,000 regulatory crimes. As journalist Radley Balko reports, “that doesn’t include federal regulations, which are increasingly being enforced with criminal, not administrative, penalties. It also doesn’t include the increasing leeway with which prosecutors can enforce broadly written federal conspiracy, racketeering, and money laundering laws. And this is before we even get to the states’ criminal codes.”

In such a society, we are all petty criminals, guilty of violating some minor law. In fact, Boston lawyer Harvey Silvergate, author of Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent, estimates that the average American now unknowingly commits three felonies a day, thanks to an overabundance of vague laws that render otherwise innocent activity illegal and an inclination on the part of prosecutors to reject the idea that there can’t be a crime without criminal intent.


For a review of Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent see:


A good short read is the e-book, USA vs You: The Flood of Criminal Laws Threatening Your Liberty:


And now, go on, have some fun with the following quiz:

Are You a Criminal?




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