Is there a war on poor people?
“You know, Mr. Lewis, these people won’t respect you since you are not charging them anything. You should have them wash your car or something.” So said Judge James Chenault, Madison Circuit Court judge for over three decades. This was said in front of my client and the many other persons lined up to await his judgment that particular day. They mostly looked down as he talked about them as if they were not there. He had welcomed me to Madison County when Kentucky DPA opened up a trial office in Richmond in 1983 by declining to meet with me to discuss how the office was going to be providing services to his court and to our clients. That meeting was never held in my thirteen years as office director. Soon thereafter, he took it upon himself to lecture me on how to deal with “those people.” He often advised me not to call them by their names in court, but rather to refer to them as the defendant. He frowned when I touched my clients. In retrospect, he talked to me almost as patronizingly as he did to those I represented.
I thought recently of how Judge Chenault talked to the poor people in my county when I read of two judges allowing a “reality show” to be filmed in their court in Louisville, Kentucky. These judges allowed a local tv station to film “deadbeat” parents. The general manager of station WBNA, Tom Fawbush, justified the reality show by saying "the concept of public shaming of wrongdoing is a healthy one for society." The two judges, one of whom has now backed off the practice, invited the producers of the reality show into their courtroom, saying it “demystifies” the courtroom and “encourages scofflaws to pay.” See more here.
Public humiliation has been used before in American history. During the earliest days, stocks were erected in the public square. There persons convicted of various crimes would be placed in public viewing. The populace would throw garbage at them, tickle their feet, and mock those sentenced in this manner. Sheriff Joe Arpaio by dressing jail inmates in pink uniforms for public humiliation seems to be operating squarely within that tradition.
We have a long history too of disdain for the poor. In the 19th century, poorhouses were often placed on “poor farms,” where poor people, often the elderly, were supported at public expense. Those poor farms were often located on the same grounds as prison farms. Poverty and criminality were viewed as similarly deplorable, if not synonymous, signs of the deity’s displeasure. Poor people were required to work on the poor farms. Also during the 19th Century, particularly in the South, “convict leasing” was used to ensure that former slaves continued to work to support the economy of the South. Remnants of that attitude can be seen in how some judges view persons applying for public defender services, in jailing persons for failing to pay fines, and in exorbitant public defender fees irrespective of the ability to pay.
This attitude was revealed most recently in the events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri. Part of the seething resentment among some in Ferguson is that they are often being arrested on outstanding warrants for failing to pay fines. They are passed off from one municipality to another municipality, creating huge problems for them as they try to feed their families and go to work.
I did not take Judge Chenault’s advice. I did not have my clients wash my car. Nor did I call them the defendant or hold them at a distance. To answer the question, while I dislike the “war” metaphor, yes, there is something of a war on poor people in this country. I am proud of public defenders when they stand up for the humanity of their clients, when they challenge unfair practices such as jailing for failure to pay fines and fees, and when they work extra hard to empower the client and her family to solve housing, employment, and other barriers to the full lives they want to live.