The 'never-ending loop' of effects small crimes have on the poor

Posted August 23, 2016

For poor people, particularly poor people of color, a traffic ticket or other minor infraction can lead to a life sentence.

Vox reported that low-income minority populations are more likely to experience the long-lasting effects of traffic tickets and other misdemeanor offenses like recurring fines, adjusted records, jail time and potentially violent police stops.

The article cited high-profile cases like Philando Castile and Michael Brown, in which numerous citations and minor traffic stops led to fatal encounters with police officers.

As reported by The New York Times, Castile was pulled over 49 times before his July 6 death. And shortly after police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Brown in August 2014, the Ferguson police chief told the public that Wilson had originally stopped Brown for jaywalking.

That specific encounter prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct an investigation into Brown's death and the Ferguson, Missouri, Police Department. In the report, the Justice Department describes numerous instances in which fines for minor infractions multiplied over time, including one woman whose $151 parking ticket cost her $1,091 after late fees and court costs.

Stories like these are not limited to Ferguson, Vox found.

Assistant professor of criminal justice at Temple University and author Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve told Vox "it's a never-ending loop" of fines and arrests that disproportionately affect minority populations.

"People are trying to get out of this cycle of paying back [fines] but being pulled back into the criminal justice system — even when they’re not wanted for things that we would think of as dangerous offenses or things that wouldn’t really harm society," Gonzalez Van Cleve said.

The problem could stem from a number of causes.

According to Vox, one is the idea of a pretextual stop, or when a police officer pulls a driver over for a minor reason and uses it to investigate the driver for a more serious crime, as one did with Castile.

Another possible cause could be what some call "net widening," or the automatic criminalization of things police have previously been more forgiving toward. Vox uses red light cameras, which assign tickets automatically, as an example of something that received more warnings than tickets in the past.

As it relates to potentially violent police stops, Vox reporter German Lopez wrote that "there’s a law of averages at play."

"If there’s a small chance that police will shoot someone during any given stop, those who are stopped more often by police are exposed to this chance — however small it may be — much more frequently," Lopez wrote. "It took Philando Castile more than 40 police stops before an officer shot and killed him, but many people — particularly those who are white and wealthy — wouldn’t get to even a fifth or 10th police stop."

Gonzalez Van Cleve told Vox that one traffic ticket or misdemeanor offense is "no small consequence" for many families with low incomes.

"Getting out of work, going to court, paying the fines, possibly not paying the fines because you’re too poor, [or] paying the fines but not being able to pay your child support and being wanted for another warrant is no small effect," Gonzalez Van Cleve told Vox.

Lopez listed possible suggestions for reducing the cycle of small crimes that he said various experts had suggested throughout his reporting. They included incorporating police training that addresses racial bias, ending the quota-based system for police, decriminalizing certain misdemeanors, limiting pretextual stops, assigning income-based fines and allowing officers to use personal discretion when deciding whether to give warnings or tickets.

Email:; Twitter: @sarapweber


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