This 12th episode of Justice in America explores the countless ways the criminal justice system criminalizes poverty—and homelessness in particular. From what is considered criminal behavior to how penalties are decided, The U.S. system system punishes people who are poor or experiencing homelessness in America far more often and more harshly than the wealthy.
Justice in America talks to Sara Totonchi, the Executive Director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, an Atlanta-based organization that, among other things, fights the criminalization of poverty in Georgia and throughout the South. To give it a listen, click here.
Here is a teaser with the opening transcript:
Josie Duffy Rice: Hi, I’m Josie Duffy Rice.
Clint Smith: And I’m Clint Smith.
Josie Duffy Rice: And this is Justice in America. Each show we discuss a topic and the American criminal justice system and we try to explain what it is and how it works.
Clint Smith: Thank you as always everyone for joining us today. You can find us on Twitter @Justice_Podcast, you can like our Facebook page at Justice in America and subscribe and rate us on iTunes. We’d love to hear from you.
Josie Duffy Rice: We opened the show with a clip from our guest, Sarah Totonchi, who is the Executive Director of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. The Southern Center as one of the most incredible organizations focused on providing legal counsel to people who wouldn’t otherwise have access and it’s brought and won some extremely important cases. Sarah is brilliant and I’m thrilled she’s going to be joining us today to talk about our topic, which is the criminalization of poverty.
Clint Smith: Yes. Today we’re going to look once again at the intense consequences of being poor in the American criminal justice system and how the system both criminalizes poverty and uses poverty as an excuse to punish a person even more. But first we have to talk about our word for the day. This season, every episode we talk about a word or phrase related to the criminal justice system that we think is misused, misunderstood or just straight up bad. We want you to think twice when you hear the phrase, interrogate its usage and ask yourself, what is it really supposed to mean? Today’s word is recidivism.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yes, recidivism. What a word. It is one of the most popular words in the criminal justice vocabulary. So you hear it used as descriptor, someone will be referred to as a recidivist for example, or you’ll hear it used as a data point, like ‘the recidivism rate is 50 percent.’ Basically, when you hear a high recidivism rate, that’s considered bad because it means that someone has ended up back in the criminal justice system.
Clint Smith: But in reality the word is too simplistic for what it seems to imply. Often it doesn’t actually tell us anything or at least anything meaningful. If your first arrest was for murder and 20 years later upon your release your second arrest was for driving without a license, are you really a recidivist in the way that we tend to think about it? In the way that we publicly talk about recidivism and the way that it’s used in the media, it can often imply that a person is arrested and put back in prison for doing a crime as bad as the one that they were initially in prison for. What if, like we’ll talk about today, you’re back in jail not for harming anyone or stealing anyone’s property, but for unpaid fines.