Ending ‘Debtors Prisons’ for Arkansas Renters

While it may not sound like something that should be legal in modern-day America, being arrested for failing to pay rent on time is a reality for some Arkansans, thanks to a state law – known as the criminal eviction statute – that has been on the books since the early 1900s. Under this law, renters can face a criminal conviction and up to 90 days in jail for being one day late on their rent.

As a civil legal aid advocate for people living in poverty in Arkansas, I’ve seen firsthand how this policy represents the criminalization of poverty at its worst. For example, one couple was charged under the law when they fell behind on their $585 monthly rent payment and didn’t move out quickly enough. Another woman was sentenced to probation even though she had been in the hospital after suffering a stroke when she was served an eviction notice.

By criminalizing conduct that all other states treat as a private breach of contract, Arkansas puts struggling citizens in jeopardy of getting stuck in financial dire straits. What’s more, saddling renters with criminal records affects their ability to keep their job (or find a new one) and therefore makes them less able to afford rent. It also worsens their chance of securing a new home, which leads to homelessness for a lot of families.

When low-income individuals are charged for nonpayment of rent, they are often unable to access the legal services that they need to defend themselves

To make matters worse, when low-income individuals are charged for nonpayment of rent, they are often unable to access the legal services that they need to defend themselves. In fact, the vast majority of the approximately 2,000 failure-to-vacate cases filed each year under the criminal eviction statute involves tenants, mostly women and children, who do not have legal representation. But, in a completely lopsided state of affairs, landlords seeking to evict a tenant always have an attorney, because the court appoints a prosecutor at the taxpayers’ expense.

Thankfully, civil legal aid advocates have seen some recent success in the effort to end this terrible policy . Artoria Smith recently found herself in an eviction dispute over back rent. She was late on her rent after the landlord demanded she pay an additional $300 to cover the cost of repairing her floor. The floor was damaged because Ms. Smith had fallen through after it rotted out.

Her story could have ended like most do: with a move, a conviction, and a fine. However, she was fortunate enough to qualify for civil legal aid at the Center for Arkansas Legal Services, one of Arkansas’s two nonprofit legal aid organizations.

Smith’s attorneys argued that the failure-to-vacate statute was unconstitutional, stating that it was a violation of due process and equal protection, unconstitutionally chilled her right to a trial, violated state and federal prohibitions against debtors prisons, and constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The judge agreed, striking down the law in its entirety in Arkansas’s largest county, which has historically prosecuted about 25% of all criminal eviction cases in the state. This case represents a major step forward for the tenants of Arkansas. Cases in two other judicial districts in the state have recently followed suit.

Unfortunately, Arkansas lawmakers have been reluctant to consider any changes to the state’s landlord-tenant laws. In 2015, two bills that would have strengthened renters’ rights were voted down in committee in the Arkansas House. HB1814 would have repealed the criminal eviction statute and HB1486 would have enacted a very basic “implied warranty of habitability,” which would have required landlords to make residential rental properties livable for tenants. Such a warranty certainly would have helped Ms. Smith.

The Arkansas legislature will have a chance to revisit the need for more balanced landlord-tenant laws when it meets again in 2017. Until then, Arkansas legal aid attorneys will be working to achieve that balance one renter at a time.


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New Ruling Highlights Why We Need the REDEEM Act

On May 21, U.S. District Judge John Gleeson ordered the expungement of the 13-year-old federal fraud conviction of “Jane Doe,” a Brooklyn home health aide. His decision received national attention for being unprecedented in the federal courts, which have no explicit authority conferred on them by Congress to expunge or seal federal criminal cases. Encouraging though it is, Judge Gleeson’s decision is most important for its illustration of the need for Congress to enact such a sealing remedy, as provided for in the bipartisan REDEEM Act (S. 675).

As my colleague Rebecca Vallas and I explained in a recent Center for American Progress report, having a criminal record is a major cause of poverty, and cleaning up a criminal record is one of the most powerful tools for overcoming the barriers associated with it. The states have recognized the power of this policy alternative, with 23 states having expanded their record-clearing laws between 2009 and 2014, as documented by the Vera Institute.

In contrast, there is virtually no statutory authority to clear records of federal court cases. Indeed, even though nearly every state permits arrests not leading to conviction to be cleared, there is no similar authority for federal cases. Even a person who is acquitted in a federal court has no explicit right to seal that case.

Jane Doe was desperate enough that she forged ahead with an expungement petition, even though it was the longest of long-shots. She is a Haitian immigrant who in 1997 was struggling to raise four children on a net monthly income from her home health aide job that was exceeded by her monthly rent alone. She participated in a staged accident as part of an automobile insurance fraud scheme which, had it been successful, would have paid her $2,500. Instead, she was found guilty of a federal charge of insurance fraud. She was sentenced to five years of probation, ten months of home detention, and a restitution order of $46,701 (toward which she faithfully paid $25 monthly, no matter how bad her financial position in later years). But in the eight years since her probation ended in 2007, Jane was fired from home health care jobs a half-dozen times after her background check. As a result, she has been unemployed most of the time.

In considering Ms. Doe’s petition, Judge Gleeson had to determine whether he had the authority to expunge a federal criminal case. In the absence of a federal law explicitly permitting expungement, he looked at whether federal courts have “ancillary jurisdiction” for that purpose. He concluded that of the nation’s twelve federal circuit courts of appeal, five may permit expungement, while five explicitly do not (with apparently no ruling in the other two). Even though he serves in one of the five circuits that may permit such a ruling, Judge Gleeson acknowledged that he was “acutely aware that ‘courts have rarely granted motions to expunge arrest records, let alone conviction records.’”

Judge Gleeson found “extreme circumstances” warranting expungement of Jane Doe’s case. The factors he pointed to for justification of his ruling included Jane’s otherwise clean record, the 17 years since the offense, the “dramatic” adverse impact on her ability to work, and her role as a minor participant in a nonviolent case.

But here’s the thing: While the impact of the federal conviction on Jane might be “extreme,” it is not unusual in the least. At the Philadelphia legal aid program where I work, we received more than 900 new requests for help last year alone by people whose criminal records were preventing them from working. A great many of these people also had old, nonviolent cases that cost them jobs and leave their families in poverty.

For instance, consider my following clients who have been involved in federal cases:

    • JT was convicted of sale of heroin in 1985, after a bad decision to try to sell drugs to provide for her children quickly ended when she sold to an undercover cop. She learned her lesson, served five years’ probation, and hasn’t been arrested since. Now 57, JT has been prevented from working with troubled children and from serving as a home care worker because of the 30-year-old case.
    • AA also was convicted of a single drug case in 1994. She too served five years’ probation and has avoided trouble ever since. She too has been threatened with loss of employment in a school because of her 20-year-old conviction.
    • In 1997, PV was convicted by a federal jury of harboring and concealing a person from arrest (she was accused of not turning over her common law husband to police). The judge overturned the verdict after the trial and acquitted her. But her case also remains available to the public and adds to her difficulties in getting work at age 64, despite 23 years in a very responsible position in a university until she was laid off.

Because the circuit court in Philadelphia has ruled that our judges have no authority to expunge criminal cases, I cannot file an expungement petition for these three women.

Fortunately, the REDEEM Act is a vehicle for change. Introduced by Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Corey Booker (D-NY), it would permit all three of my clients – and hundreds of thousands more – to seek to seal their records. The bill is not perfect. It limits sealing to nonviolent cases, including nonviolent arrests. All cases that have not resulted in conviction should be permitted to be sealed. But enactment of the REDEEM Act would be a very important step forward.

Judge Gleeson concluded, “[Jane Doe’s] case highlights the need to take a fresh look at policies that shut people out from the social, economic and educational opportunities they desperately need in order to reenter society successfully.” Amen to that. Let’s pass the REDEEM Act and provide the federal expungement remedy that is so desperately needed by people across the country like Jane Doe.


Media and Politics

The Half in Ten Campaign Is Now TalkPoverty.org

Over the past several years, the Half in Ten campaign has partnered with advocates and organizations across the country to raise our collective voice in support of the policies that we know will dramatically reduce poverty. We have established many initiatives and tools to support advocates, and one year ago, we launched this partner website, TalkPoverty.org.

After a year of building TalkPoverty.org and increasing its reach, we are thrilled to combine forces to offer one place online where you can learn about poverty in America and find the resources you need to do something about it. All of the data tools and action resources at Halfinten.org are now available on this website.  Additionally, the Center for American Progress will continue to publish the Half in Ten annual report on poverty and inequality in collaboration with the Coalition on Human Needs and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. We also will continue to manage our story network, in partnership with the Coalition on Human Needs, to provide low-income people with opportunities to take action by sharing their personal stories with media and policymakers.

We’re excited to have the Half in Ten community join forces with us to learn about poverty in America and take action to build a vibrant anti-poverty movement.



CBS’s The Briefcase Pits Struggling Americans Against Each Other

Last week, CBS premiered The Briefcase, a new reality program created by David Broome, who also produces The Biggest Loser. In contrast to participants on other hit reality shows, people in The Briefcase aren’t competing for an all-expense paid honeymoon prize or the opportunity to work as head chef at a world-renowned restaurant. Rather, struggling families are presented with a briefcase filled with $101,000 cash, enough to lift them out of their current economic hardship so that they are no longer living paycheck to paycheck.

But the “life-altering sum of money,” as Broome puts it, is not offered without a stipulation: The Briefcase then callously calls on these families to determine whether they are willing to share the cash prize with another family that is judged to be in equal or greater need. The briefcase recipients are presented with information about the other family’s hardships in order to determine whether they are more deserving of the cash, or at least some portion of it. Then there is a face-to-face meeting between the families where it is revealed if and how the money will be divvied up, and—wait for it—that both families had actually been given the cash-filled briefcases and told to decide who was more deserving of the dough.

In effect, The Briefcase pits one family’s financial hardship against that of another, pushing families on the brink to “prove themselves” worthy of the cash assistance.

Asking families to determine who among them is experiencing the “most need” or is the “most deserving” is an impossible choice, one that no family should have to make. In 2006, leading up to the collapse of the auto industry, the automotive parts factory where my father worked appeared certain to close. I distinctly remember the overwhelming anxiety and looming uncertainty about my family’s economic future that I felt at 16-years-old: I began to question if we would lose our house, if I would be able to attend college, or if our family would be able to weather an unexpected medical emergency should my father lose his job.

The pitting of struggling Americans against one another is reinforced by our current economic policy and budget debates.

Feeling utterly hopeless, I prayed that another plant would be closed instead of my father’s plant. Ultimately, my father’s factory remained open, but others nearby were shutdown.

At the time, I believed my prayers were in the best interest of my family’s short-term security and long-term stability. My parents worked hard to provide for us and played by the rules; hadn’t we earned the right to be economically secure? In hindsight, I was, in effect, making the same judgment call that families in The Briefcase are asked to make: to determine whether the very real struggles and economic hardships of their own family supersede the dire financial circumstances of another family.

When I first learned about the premise of The Briefcase, I immediately thought of those workers whose families were supported by the automotive industry until they received that pink slip. More specifically, I think of their children, who, like me, may have also prayed for the security of their parents’ or caregivers’ jobs but whose lives were upheaved.

Pitting struggling Americans against one another is nothing new in the United States; the distinction between the so-called “undeserving poor” versus the “deserving poor” has long dictated policy debates on how to most effectively address poverty in America. What’s more, the pitting of struggling Americans against one another is reinforced by our current economic policy and budget debates.

At the federal level, we see struggling Americans pitted against each other through draconian, self-inflicted budget caps that pit critical domestic spending priorities – such as job training programs, affordable housing, and school funding – against one another. At the state level, we see lawmakers categorizing the “deserving poor” and the “undeserving poor” by passing measures such as mandatory drug testing and work requirements for people who need cash assistance. Further, we make struggling families jump through hoops that aren’t required of other people who receive government assistance.

Rather than dedicate attention to television programming that perpetuates damaging stereotypes of the “deserving poor,” the American public should devote its collective conscious to supporting policies that would lift these families out of economic hardship. Policies like increasing the federal minimum wage, enacting paid sick days legislation, expanding Medicaid in all states, investing in high quality preschool programs, and reining in America’s skyrocketing college tuition costs are just some of the many ways we can help elevate struggling American families. Maybe then these families wouldn’t need to resort to the exploitive parameters of CBS’s newest primetime addition.

In its promotional video, The Briefcase rightly points out that “across America, hardworking middle-class families are feeling the impact of rising debt and shrinking paychecks.” But by exploiting the very real and painful struggle that accompanies financial hardship, The Briefcase does a disservice to America’s working- and middle-class families by billing their suffering as primetime “entertainment.”



What a Real Anti-Poverty Movement Looks Like

There’s no point beating around this bush. An anti-poverty movement led by the middle and upper classes is doomed to failure. Equally, a partisan movement will never manage to get much done. That said, it’s never a bad thing when people discuss these things – there are 45 million people living in poverty in America, after all. Poverty looks like everything.

Occupy Wall Street was a great moment in the progressive movement. It did a lot to change the national discussion about poverty and inequality. But to people like me – from a small town in rural Utah – it looked like a bunch of confused, disaffected youth. Progressives understand their own language, why you might lead a group of thousands by consensus. I saw a woman who had named herself Ketchup waving jazz hands on national TV and realized that this movement wasn’t for me or my people.

I watched the Tea Party form – a populist movement as far as most of its participants understood it. My family members are Tea Partiers, waving guns and flags and talking about federal overreach. But to people like me – a center-left libertarian sort – it looked like a bunch of angry Baby Boomers trying to regain their glory days and demanding that those of us in the younger generations continue to pick up the tab for their lifelong profligacy. Keep your government hands off my Medicaid, indeed. That movement wasn’t for me either.

A movement that works has to be apartisan. It has to be pragmatic. It has to avoid divisive social issues – there are plenty of programs we can agree on, plenty of problems we can point out. It doesn’t matter whether a McDonald’s worker agrees with abortion or not, they still deserve a higher wage.

America’s working classes are pragmatic people. It’s the only way to survive. When a cook loans a cashier ten bucks until payday, nobody’s vetting each other for their ideological purity on drones or gay marriage. It’s just workers helping each other out, because one thing you learn in the service industry is that you’re all in it together.

That’s the ethos that will create a real anti-poverty movement. That’s the coalition that can win.

We need a robust debate in America on social issues. But we do ourselves no favors by essentially splitting our potential support in half before we even get started. Two-thirds of Americans live paycheck to paycheck – what if we got them all asking about counterproductive welfare regulations, talking about how ridiculous it is to worry about the spending habits of the lower classes when there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around?

What would happen if two-thirds of America decided that partisanship isn’t working out so well in Washington and started demanding better?

We, all of us who spend our lives worrying about making rent and buying our kids new crayons when the old ones have been crushed into wax dust, need better representation. We need officials to worry about what happens when they ignore us as surely as they worry about their donors.

The truth is, there isn’t a millionaire in the world who could craft a coherent welfare policy. Programs that require you to quit your job to attend job training courses to get benefits, because nobody remembered to write in an exception, or misunderstandings about the differences in generational vs. situational poverty – those exist because the wealthy tried to imagine what poverty must be like. And they guessed wrong.

A strong movement will be made up of the people who are poverty experts because they have lived in poverty.

A strong anti-poverty movement will be led by the people who understand what poverty really is, why it happens, how we could create workable solutions. A strong movement will be made up of the people who are poverty experts because they have lived in poverty.  There is no one leader in this movement; there can’t be. It has to be a broad coalition of strange bedfellows, because there are 45 million people living in poverty in America. That many people can’t look like any one thing.

Political leaders also need to remember that flyover country is the vast majority. Plenty of people live in coastal megacities. But less than 40% of Americans live in a coastal county. That’s a lot of inlanders that are only courted during political campaign season. If we want to build a movement that will last, we need to accept that we’re going to have to talk to people like me – people who are disaffected by what works in cosmopolitan cities, people who are actively repelled by those tactics.

We will win when finding solutions to poverty becomes more important to us than any other issue, when we stop condescending to people who hold different beliefs and values and start recognizing that just like a restaurant crew, we’re all in this together.

I think most people will understand that people have firm opinions on things. But strategically speaking, I think it’s a good thing if you can say, for example, that people on either side of a fight as divisive as reproductive healthcare access can agree on raising wages. For now, I want to be able to demand fair treatment at work, where my political and social values are largely irrelevant. I want proper safety equipment. I want to be able to file workers’ comp without fear of retaliation. I want paid sick leave and maternity leave and a schedule that I can count on two weeks in advance. I want a wage that reflects the work I put in.

Those things, you can build a coalition around. And when we put the workers in charge of their own destinies, we’ll find that we can win.