Criminalizing Being Poor

We’ve talked here about how our country has a modern day debtors’ prison system that criminalizes being poor. In an earlier post, we discussed the prison-for-debt world, populated mostly by poor people of color who have essentially been shaken down by the local police force and then fined and jailed in squalid, medieval-like prisons for failure to pay outrageous fines and fees for petty violations like parking and traffic offenses. Today, I want to introduce you to Pagedale, Missouri, a town about ten miles outside of St. Louis (and six miles from Ferguson) that illustrates what the criminalization of being poor looks like. Such towns fund large chunks of their municipal budget with fines and fees and then go after citizens to pay up or go to jail.

Because the State of Missouri limited how much revenue a town can generate from traffic tickets, Pagedale increased its non-traffic related tickets by 495%. The list of offenses the town fines or imprisons citizens for would seem farcical if it weren’t true. According to a class-action complaint filed against the town, ticket-worthy offenses include:

  • having windows facing the street without neatly hung, presentable drapes or blinds
  • having a basketball hoop or wading pool in front of the front line of the house
  • having a front yard hedge above 3 feet high
  • having a dish antenna on the front of the house
  • walking on the road if there is a sidewalk
  • not walking on the left side of the road if there is no sidewalk
  • not walking on the right side of crosswalks
  • playing in the street
  • wearing pants below the waist
  • having dead vegetation, fallen trees, or weeds higher than seven inches
  • failing to have a screen on every door and window

Unless a penalty is specified by the local code, violations are punishable by up to $1000 in penalties, three months in jail, or both. To contest a citation, citizens have to take off work or school and go to court and wade through a messy, confusing, time-consuming system.

Mildred Bryant, a retired 84 year old who has lived in Pagedale for 46 years and lives alone, received a building inspection report demanding, among other things: that she get blinds, matching curtains or window treatments; that she remove the weeds from her driveway; and that she cut back other weeds. She did not comply within 30 days, so she faced the threat of fines or imprisonment. Valarie Whitner was ordered to replace her siding; repaint her gutters, downspout and foundation; put up screens or storm covers outside every window and blinds or curtains on the inside; and make repairs to her roof, fence and yard. In addition to the cost of the repairs themselves, she received $2400 in fines, fees, and court costs for having the code violations and risked imprisonment if she failed to pay.

Each layer of injustice in this is disturbing in its own right. First, you have the police department, preying on poor people in order to find violations. Then there is the huge government imposition of making people come into court to defend against how high their weeds were or how low their belt was. After that, for most it’s a fine, fee and court costs, on top of the costs of correcting the infractions. And then, if the fines aren’t paid, people are imprisoned, often in horrifically inhumane conditions. The criminalization of being poor is wrong on every level. It is not an acceptable way to fund our government.


Mildred Bryant, who was given 30 days to fix a dozen violations or face a court summons. Photo Credit Whitney Curtis for The New York Times
Mildred Bryant, who was given 30 days to fix a dozen violations or face a court summons.
Photo Credit Whitney Curtis for The New York Times


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