Berks County Bar Association The Berks Barrister Winter 2019 - 32

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Book Review
Not a Crime
to Be Poor

The Criminalization
of Poverty in America.
By PETER B. EDELMAN

Reviewed by Valerie B. West, Esquire

P

eter B. Edelman's most-recent book meticulously examines
how the American criminal justice system and the zeal
to shrink government at all levels have left low-income
families and minorities clinging to a frayed social safety net.
Edelman has a distinguished and diverse background in
academics and public policy. He worked for Senator Robert
F. Kennedy and met his wife while touring impoverished
Mississippi with Kennedy in the midst of the Civil Rights
movement of the 1960s.i Edelman served as director of the New
York state Division for Youth, and later as counsel to Health
and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala during President
Bill Clinton's administration in the 1990s. Currently, he is the
Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law and Public Policy at
Georgetown University Law Center and Director of the Center
on Poverty and Inequality. For me, Edelman's five decades of
experience witnessing poverty's steep human toll and working
on solutions to address income inequality add authority to his
analysis.
For Edelman, the roots of the current problems can be traced
to tax cuts enacted by President Ronald Reagan, resulting in
budget shortages across many state and local functions such as the
court system. Charging the "users" of the system had certain logic
for local officials but a failure to guard against imposing fees on
those unable to pay has led to more incarceration and hardship.
A concomitant push to privatize government services has led to
32 | Berks Barrister

for-profit probation agencies, prisons and others. At the same
time, budget shortages and lack of political will have harmed
public education and many social safety net institutions, such as
public hospitals, mental health services, public housing and legal
aid. These cuts also made police the de facto first responders.
Edelman argues that many criminal justice system actors are
motivated by implicit racial bias, and pressured to collect fees
and add more bodies to the system to protect their own jobs and
institutions. Others intentionally mistreat those caught in the
system and pursue profits regardless of the effect on people.
Edelman powerfully describes a range of policies that have
the effect of unfairly punishing the poor and racial minorities,
providing data and vignettes. He begins with the debt imposed
first as fines and costs, even on those defendants who may not
initially be incarcerated. Then there are the fees assessed as part
of probation, and some jurisdictions actually charge for room and
board in jails and prisons. Some jurisdictions have even resorted
to charging for public defenders! Diversion programs and
special courts are laudable, but often come with more fees and, in
practice, are less accessible to the poor. Right now in the United
States 10 million people - representing two-thirds of all current
and former offenders in the country - owe a total of $50 billion in
accumulated fines, costs, fees and other criminal justice debt.ii
Edelman goes on to discuss cash bail, and those who sit in
jail, perhaps losing a job and being pressured to take a plea just to


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Berks County Bar Association The Berks Barrister Winter 2019

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