By Ash Smith, University of Notre Dame (2017).
Driving into Manchester, Kentucky, I read a roadside billboard: “City of Hope.” Here lies hope of the American Dream – the idea that anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, no matter the quicksand of severe structural obstacles those boots may be stuck in. During my summer in Kentucky, I overheard Clay County judges telling Manchester residents: “Do what you’re supposed to do and everything will work out. Good luck.”
So, “good luck” in the City of Hope, which has a poverty rate of 38 percent, making Manchester one of the nation’s poorest rural Appalachian towns. Among its attractions, Clay County boasts the 2010 Unhealthiest County in Kentucky award. This is likely related to the median household income being $22,296/year. Unemployment in Clay is more than twice the national average, hovering around 13 percent. Employment in Clay is further diminished by the disability rate, which is a whopping 11.7 percent, ten times the national average. Unsurprisingly, if you are born into the bottom income quintile here, your chances of upward mobility – of rising to the top twenty percent – are 7.7%. But this is the City of Hope, and “everything will work out.” It’s okay. “Good luck.” Having the opportunity to work in Clay County this summer, I saw just how ironic that statement was. I found the American Dream to be misleading, and the “hope” to be injurious. I witnessed how severely people are impacted when they cannot climb out of the political, structural, and systemic “quicksand” in which they are embedded. And Clay County residents have a lot of quicksand to stand in.
Working at Kentucky’s Department of Public Advocacy (DPA), I learned the myriad of ways in which low-income persons are disadvantaged by our nation’s criminal justice system. I witnessed many criminal charges that I simply wouldn’t experience as a non-low-income person, like being ticketed for lack of car insurance or for a broken taillight (which you couldn’t fix because you had to pay the electric bill), or for being a narcotics middleman (because there were no other jobs available). Many Appalachians, moreover, lack bank accounts, which you can imagine might be a problem when they are then asked to pay hefty restitution costs and court fees. Court fees alone are $143 minimum in Kentucky, so a $20 speeding ticket will incur you a $163 cost; and if you cannot pay up, you face contempt of court charges. Judges require defendants to pay a minimum of $20 per month of their restitution and/or court costs, which struck me as low before considering that this rule exists because many can barely afford that.
Poverty-specific crimes like these are not just misdemeanors; they can be serious felonies carrying multi-year sentences, as in the case of flagrant non-support. Flagrant non-support – or, as one of our attorneys called it, “modern-day debtors’ prison” – is a charge you acquire when you owe either a six-month backlog or over $1,000 in child support. One may think such a law is justified because it is very hard for the custodial, now-single parent to take care of a child alone. That much is true. But the workings of the legal system make flagrant non-support problematic not only for the parent supporting the child, but also for the parent who cannot pay. Suppose the amount of child support is set when you have a steady job. A local recession hits, eliminating your job and, along with it, your stream of income. In the United States, you do not have a right to a court-appointed attorney in family or civil court, meaning that if you want to change the amount of child support you owe per month to accommodate your reduced income, you need enough money to hire a private attorney who can reset the child support fee. But you don’t have a job, and you cannot afford a lawyer; so you are charged with flagrant non-support. This charge carries a sentence up to five years and brands you a felon for life. “Good luck.”
When you are branded a felon in the United States, a host of disadvantages come your way. You become disenfranchised and can no longer vote in national or even local elections. Your job prospects weaken because potential employers discriminate against those with felonious charges. You can neither own nor be around a firearm, which is a cultural problem in areas like Appalachian Kentucky, where nearly everybody has a firearm. If you are caught in the home or car of somebody who is carrying, you rack up another felony and can become a “PFO.” A PFO in Kentucky is a Persistent Felony Offender – or, in other states, a “Habitual Offender.” As a PFO, when you are brought in for your next felony (maybe another charge of flagrant non-support), you face a mandatory 10-20 year sentence, even if the jury finds you sympathetic. Now you are serving decades of your life in prison literally because you are poor. As one of our clients stated appropriately, “Come on, man. That ain’t justice.”
In addition to poverty-specific crimes, I learned low-income folks suffer distinct disadvantages in the courtroom itself. First, there is no public transportation in rural Kentucky; and if clients cannot find a ride to court, they will be charged with contempt. Second, there are no childcare services offered in Kentucky courthouses. All charged are expected to come to court at 9:00 A.M. and may not be called upon until 3:00 P.M.; they must stay in court, nonetheless, and lose a full workday. Children are not allowed in five of the six courts we visited; parents in these counties incur the cost of a day’s childcare, as well as a day of missed work.
Further, the lack of education associated with growing up in impoverished areas impacted our clients. It was difficult even for me – as a college-educated individual – to read and understand the court’s legalese-written forms and documents, so it comes as no surprise that our clients struggled in following the proceedings and understanding legal terms. Before being appointed a public defender, defendants have to plea either “guilty” or “not guilty” and ask for either a “trial by judge” or one “by jury”; few are well enough informed to know what to say. Just one out of the six judges with whom we interacted read clients their rights quickly in legalese and then slowed down to explain them in layman’s terms, making sure defendants understood.
Clearly, our current criminal justice system disproportionately hurts Americans of low socioeconomic status. How do we change it? After my summer with the DPA, I have come to believe this is a political problem. The political impediments begin with the disenfranchisement of felons, who are then left voiceless to compel change. If judges are elected (as in Kentucky) and felons cannot vote, then those who are most impacted by the criminal justice system have no say in how it is run. The mere fact of electing judges, further, introduces bias into who runs and who wins the judgeship. Even local county judges regularly spend as much as one million dollars running their campaigns, according to the attorneys in my office, and a substantial amount of that campaign money comes from wealthy businesspeople—not the low-income locals who interact with the judges in the courtroom. To appeal to their business-owning electoral supporters, judges are pressured to present themselves as “tough on crime.” As a result, we end up with folks in jail for shoplifting a two-dollar candy bar. “Good luck.”
The county jailer is elected, too. Again, those most impacted (the felons) have no say in voting for this person. That this job is elected also means that no credentials, merit, or experience are required, so you might end up with a situation we encounter in Laurel County, where the jailer is a former racecar driver with no experience in criminal justice at all. Jails run by folks like this might also operate as for-profit institutions. A jailer who profits off a jail is unlikely to host expensive programs like GED classes, even though we have strong statistical data confirming their effect on recidivism-reduction. (Instead, our NASCAR driver saves enough to buy himself a swimming pool.) For-profit jails may also deny inmates medical access because of its cost. They’ll accuse prisoners of “malingering” – making up or exaggerating symptoms – because this is easier and costs less money. Such happened to our client, “Michelle,” who has a legitimate mental illness; diagnosed as “malingering,” however, she can no longer receive the psychological treatment she needs nor the mitigated sentence to which she is entitled. This diagnosis is more profitable for our former NASCAR-driving friend.
Clearly, it isn’t paradise in the City of Hope, and low-income Americans suffer disproportionately in the criminal justice system in many ways. However, this internship has newly inspired me to work to change these political circumstances, and I hope to work in advocacy for those low-income folks impacted. This summer was a crucial step in my career discernment process, as well as in my education as a sociology/public policy student interested in our nation’s system of criminal justice. I am deeply grateful for having been awakened to these hidden injustices that hurt the silenced; I am determined to let them be heard. Wishing them “good luck” is simply not enough. We can (and must) work to make Manchester, and towns like it across America, truly “Cities of Hope.”