Crimes Of Desperation

If you do the crime, you should do the time. This is the common belief that many people have; and why not? If you are an adult who has consciously committed a crime — no matter what that crime is — then you should in turn be punished for the cost, time and resources that you’ve drained from the rest of society.

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I feel that this train of thought is reactive and fails to identify significant injustices in the system. For example, when a disproportionate amount of crimes being committed by single mothers are classified as ‘crimes of desperation’ it’s fair to say that there is an undeniable need for change. What sort of crimes are these? Take, for example, a single mother who has no choice but to steal baby formula to feed her child or a parent who winds up in prison after defending their children from an abusive spouse. These are crimes of desperation and throwing someone in jail for committing them is far more costly than investing in beneficial services to assist those in need.

There are a handful of amazing organizations that seek to assist those facing incarceration for crimes of desperation by offering services and programs, a means for counseling, support and financial assistance. One in particular that I hold near and dear is The Elizabeth Fry Society (EFRY). I have the opportunity to work with Dr. Scharie Tavcer, on the board of EFRY, who wrote a report in collaboration with the United Way's Poverty Reduction Coalition. She states that “incarceration rates tend to support the idea that criminal acts committed by women are usually connected to poverty,” (Crimes of Desperation. The truth about poverty-related crime, 2008). This report questions the fairness around incarcerating women who resort to committing crimes in order to provide items related to basic needs for their families. These crimes are, for the most part, being committed as a matter of survival; when in “survival mode” it may be tough to consider the severity of consequences.

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An actual example in the Crimes of Desperation report (link above) is the case of a single mother who uses public transportation on her daily commute to work. More often than not, she finds herself unable to afford the $2.50 fare. After deciding not to purchase a ticket, she is caught and fined $150. She goes from not being able to afford $2.50 to now having to come up with $150 while somehow trying to make ends meet. A few months pass by; her fine has gone unpaid and a warrant is issued. She then spends time in prison where the cost of incarceration is up to $690 a day.

EFRY offers programs that back women (and men) through prison outreach and court support. For example, the EFRY Fine Payment Program is a unique and innovative program that provides to help pay tickets, fines, bail costs, pardon application costs and any fees associated with filing restraining orders to women in poverty. (Crimes of Desperation. The truth about poverty-related crime, 2008). How can we justify up to $690 a day to punish someone whose crime doesn’t necessitate punishment in the form of a prison cell?

I’m by no means suggesting the distribution of ‘get out of jail free’ cards and second chances for all. I’m trying to stress that there is a larger issue at hand when those who make an honest living still find themselves well below poverty level and struggle to provide the very basics (food, shelter and clothing) for their families.

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Community-based programs are far less expensive and clearly more beneficial. Statistically, once someone is placed in the system it becomes much more difficult to end the cycle. In the instance of an incarcerated single mother, a home is broken and children are placed in foster care. Once she is released, the chance that she still has a job is very slim and her potential for re-employment with a criminal record are next to non-existent. What are the options for someone who has little to no resources? Ashamed, homeless, her children now taken away and failed attempts to get a job- she turns to any available alternative and winds up in jail again.

There is a place for those individuals in society who perpetually chose to commit crimes, but it is my hope that organizations like EFRY can continue to provide resources to those in need.
A prison cell does not provide a solution for poverty.