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The Injustice of Being Impoverished

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The Injustice of Being Impoverished

The US Office of Management and Budget lists the weighted average poverty threshold for a family of four as $21,203, for a family of 3 at $16,530, 2 at $13,540, and 1 at $10,590. Shamefully, there are many American families who must survive on much less. Should this mean that these families are the number one suspects each time there is a crime committed in or around their communities? The connection between poverty and crime has been a controversial object of debate for years and continues to be today. There have been arguments by scholars for both sides of the spectrum. Some feel that those who fall victim of continuous hard times with little hope for help or change would eventually turn to a life of crime to obtain their necessities for survival. My own feelings are that although many were born and raised in poverty, they were reared with integrity and morals and may choose to live their lives as law-abiding citizens. Whatever essentials they can afford they would come by honestly and whatever they cannot afford, they accept living without. But what happens when victims of poverty become suspects of crimes and need court representation?

According to the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution, the accused is guaranteed the right to a lawyer at all important stages of the criminal process. America has an adversary system of justice. A trial is a contest between the prosecutor, who represents the state, and the defense attorney, who represents the accused. The facts of the case or an appreciation of the truth at the heart of it arises from the combat between these two sides. The role of the judge is to oversee what happens, impartially enforcing rules of evidence and procedure. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the defendant will receive adequate representation. The state’s prosecutors are usually affluent, Ivy League, crackerjack attorneys. Most have political aspirations and a desire to add to an already impressive resume so they are highly motivated for a win. A major obstacle blocking realization of equal justice is the poverty of many individuals accused of crime; they cannot afford to pay for an adequate defense. For those impoverished who are proven to fall within the qualifications of indigence, the court appoints an attorney to them “pro bono”, free of charge with a small processing fee. Their poverty often results in less than adequate legal representation and unequal treatment in court because court appointed attorneys are known to have an overload of cases, be less experienced, and sometimes simply put more effort forth when payment is being received. In many instances the poor will accept a plea bargain even when they are not guilty of the crime and end up serving jail time. On the other hand defendants who are affluent enough to afford to hire their own counsels often receive a better defense and more favorable treatment and shorter sentences which include probation with no jail time. Subsequently, the results are American prisons becoming overcrowded and the majority of prisoners being minorities which in many cases equates to the impoverished. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world. Although minorities include, black, white, asian, and others, the racial distribution of inmates in the U.S. is highly negative for black Americans above all others. Whereas blacks only make up 12% of the total U.S. population, they represent more than 40% of inmates as indicated by the chart below:
U.S. population by race: U.S. inmates by race:

When Americans worry about crime they are most anxious about murder, robbery, rape and assault, the four most violent crimes against a person. Crimes against persons as well as property crimes are associated with poverty, yet the United States, a very affluent country, has the highest incarceration rate and one of the highest crime rates in the world. The reported rate of violent crimes has been increasing; it rose from 253 in 1967 to 401 per 100,000 in 1978. Incarceration rates in the United States have risen sharply since 1980, but especially for young black men. More than one in three young black men without a high school diploma is currently behind bars. Young black men who dropped out of high school are more likely to be incarcerated than employed. According to many criminologists, it is all relative to poverty; no education, no job, no money, increased crime. So what does that mean for society in today’s economy?
Logically, with America being in a period of recession over the past two years, crime involving the impoverished statistics would be well on the rise. However, according to FBI statistics, crime rates went down across the board in 2009. Way down. Murder, rape, robbery, assault, auto theft—plummeted, one and all. Then, the FBI released preliminary data for the first six months of 2010, and again the same pattern emerged. Violent crimes and property crimes alike have been falling in every region of the country. What gives? Have experts just completely misunderstood what causes people to commit crimes? There's certainly no shortage of theories for why crime rates have gone down over the past two years. The simplest explanation is that crime just isn’t closely related to economic conditions. Consider, after all, the two big crime epidemics in the twentieth century—the first took root in the late 1960s, during a period of healthy growth; the other came during the economic dispair of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The only constant here, it seems, is that both outbreaks were fueled by a major expansion of drug markets: heroin in the 1970s, crack in the 1990s. The current recession has seen a surge in demand for prescription drugs like Oxycontin or Xanax, but, for a variety of reasons, those illicit markets aren’t associated with the same levels of violence.

In conclusion, it is my own opinion that poverty and crime do have a connection in some cases but it is being amplified in a prejudicial way. There are many Caucasians who commit various “white collar” crimes as well as some of the same violent crimes minorities are more frequently accused of and incarcerated for but with the representation afforded to them, there is usually little or no prison time served. Prison population statistics do not compare to crime rate statistics. National authorities can be more or less effective or prejudiced in the prosecution of crime, and this is reflected in prison population statistics. A low percentage of the population that is incarcerated doesn’t imply a low crime rate. It can just as well imply ineffective prosecution and injustice for the impoverished.

U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics
Plumer, Bradford, December 22, 2010, Crime Conundrum: Why are rates of violence and theft dropping in the recession?, The New Republic
Bach, Amy (2009), Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court. New York, New York, Henry Holt and Company, LLC
Statistics on Prison Population, P.A.P.-BLOG, Human Rights, Etc., Retrieved from on-prisoner-population-rates/

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