The Cycle of Poverty and Crime: It’s Time to Break the Wheel

  • May 17 2019

In November, the public overwhelmingly supported an amendment to the Florida Constitution that would restore the voting rights of felons. It was an important step forward in our never-ending quest for liberty and justice for all. But don’t break out the champagne just yet. This spring, state lawmakers passed a law requiring felons to pay restitution, and all the fines and fees connected to their offense before they can cast a ballot.

Some people are calling this a modern-day poll tax, and a reincarnation of the Jim Crow laws that kept so many black people from participating in civic life in the early to mid 20th century. Since a disproportionate number of felons in our state are African American, this is a serious concern.

Regardless of a felon’s race, this new law is just another sad example of the way our laws perpetuate the cycle of poverty. Most crimes are committed not by people who are bad, but by people who are desperate. We would see a lot less crime if everyone had the means to support themselves, provide for their families, and treat their addictions.

Nickel and diming people as they struggle to get their lives back in order and participate in civil society is not a good idea. We see this play out all the time when it comes to minor traffic tickets that lead to drivers license suspensions and even prison time.

While it is true that driving is a privilege, not a right, living in the Miami area without a license is basically impossible. Yet many people wind up behind bars because they were unable to pay the fines and fees tied to minor motor vehicle offenses.

Here’s how it works. A person is pulled over for a minor offense like not wearing a seatbelt (Side note: you should always wear a seatbelt!). The person doesn’t pay the fine, it goes to collections, still no payment, and eventually, the DMV suspends his or her license.

The next time the person is pulled over, they get a ticket for driving with a suspended license. The first two times this happens, it’s just another fine the driver can’t pay. The fines go to collections, which means a 40% surcharge is tacked on, and the likelihood of the fine ever being paid off drops even further. That person is probably never getting a license again.

The third time someone is ticketed for driving with a suspended, revoked, canceled, or disqualified (commonly abbreviated as DWLS) license, it’s a third degree felony. That’s a serious, spend-up-to-five-years-in-prison offense, all because the person couldn’t afford to pay some traffic tickets.

It’s time to re-think the ways we punish people for crimes, and consider the unintended consequences. In the meantime, our firm will continue to defend the rights of people accused of crimes, and advocate for people who are trying to put their lives right after a conviction. The cycle of poverty and crime is real, so we must all do all we can to break the wheel.

Posted in: Voting Rights