Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

The price of being homeless

Compassion | Cities try to ease the burden of court costs on the poor while keeping public order
by Charissa Koh
Posted 11/20/19, 02:14 pm

Los Angeles voided more than 2 million citations and arrest warrants for minor infractions related to homelessness last month. City Attorney Mike Feuer said the step would “help address root causes of poverty and homelessness” and allow city officials to focus on more important public safety issues.

Many cities ban panhandling, defecating in public, camping, or lying down on public property. People living on the streets tend to accrue citations and fines ranging from tens to hundreds of dollars, depending on the city. Failure to pay means late fees. No permanent address means nowhere to receive a notice to appear in court. Missing a court date can mean an arrest warrant and a night or more in jail. Criminal records make it tough to land a job or housing. The cycle of fees and fines pushes people deeper into homelessness and poverty.

Some activists propose removing the laws against camping and panhandling altogether. The American Civil Liberties Union is working to eliminate anti-panhandling laws, state by state. But in places like Austin, Texas, which repealed its public camping ban earlier this year, business owners say the homeless population on the streets is causing disorder and driving away customers.

In 2016, the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty initiated a campaign called Housing Not Handcuffs to promote housing and services for the homeless instead of penalties. It said the money a city spends enforcing penalties, making arrests, and housing people in jail far exceeds the revenue it would get from the payment of fines.

San Francisco, another California city with a massive homelessness problem, eliminated its justice system fines last year. It encouraged its court system to reduce the amount owed for existing violations and allow people to pay off tickets with community service. By November 2018, the city was bringing in more revenue than before because people were willing to pay off the more manageable fines.

“The number of people getting on payment plans went up 400 percent,” Anne Stuhldreher, director of the San Francisco Financial Justice Project, told Chicago’s WBEZ-FM. Washington state took a similar step last year.

Los Angeles still issues citations to homeless people, but Feuer told KCRW-FM that courts can dismiss the charges or assign community service instead of fines. The Homeless Court Program also works to dismiss fines for people who sign up for housing or services. “People do need to be accountable for their actions, and that includes people who are homeless,” Feuer said.

In Falls Church, Va., a program called Homestretch provides people with housing, education, and support for two years, removing barriers to their independence. Christopher Fay, the program’s executive director, said many clients, especially single moms, struggle with accumulated debt. If a single mother went to jail for unpaid fines, she could lose her job, miss rent payments, and see late fees and increased credit card interest skyrocket. On a tight budget, this could mean losing her apartment and becoming homeless with her children once she gets out of jail.

“I believe some crimes demand incarceration, because of the severity or violence involved,” said Fay. “But most crimes associated with poverty—misdemeanors, drunkenness, quality of life violations—are like shouts for help by people who feel lost and unable to cope.”

Associated Press/Photo by Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman Associated Press/Photo by Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman Protesters in support of Rodney Reed in Bastrop, Texas, on Nov. 13

Death row inmate gets a reprieve

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Friday halted the scheduled execution of Rodney Reed just hours after the state Board of Pardons and Paroles recommended a delay.

Reed, 51, was set for lethal injection on Wednesday evening for murder. But protesters, celebrities, and lawmakers have pushed for a reevaluation of the case in light of new evidence. The appeals court sent Reed’s case back to the trial court in Bastrop County so it could reexamine claims that prosecutors suppressed evidence and presented false testimony.

A jury convicted Reed of raping and strangling to death 19-year-old Stacey Stites in 1996. He and his attorneys have maintained his innocence and claimed Stites’ fiancé, former police officer Jimmy Fennell, killed her because she and Reed were having an affair. Prosecutors have fought efforts by Reed’s attorneys to do DNA testing of the crime scene evidence—including the suspected murder weapon—for years. New affidavits in recent weeks included testimony from another inmate claiming Fennell bragged about killing Stites and referred to Reed using a racial slur. New physical evidence corroborating Reed’s story has also emerged.

Protesters rallied in Washington, D.C., on Thursday night urging the U.S. Supreme Court to take up Reed’s case.

“This opportunity will allow for proper consideration of the powerful and mounting new evidence of Mr. Reed’s innocence,” said Bryce Benjet, an attorney with the Innocence Project, which is representing Reed. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has not said whether the state will appeal the stay. —Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Associated Press/Photo by Matt Rourke (file) Associated Press/Photo by Matt Rourke (file) Immigrants take the oath of citizenship during a naturalization ceremony at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.

Costly application

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security last week proposed increasing the cost of immigration. Officials said the government needs the fee to cover the full cost of naturalization.

“The adjudication of immigration applications and petitions requires in-depth screening, incurring costs that must be covered by the agency, and this proposal accounts for our operational needs and better aligns our fee schedule with the costs of processing each request,” acting Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli said.

The proposed rule would raise the application fee for naturalization from $640 to $1,170, an 83 percent increase. The department also proposed new or increased fees on a variety of other services, including $50 to process an asylum claim. Only Australia, Fiji, and Iran have any kind of asylum application fee. —R.L.A.

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Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and prison reform, including profiling ministries in the annual Hope Awards for Effective Compassion competition. She is also a part of WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. Charissa resides with her husband, Josh, in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @CharissaKoh.

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