Gideon's Servants and the Criminalization of Poverty
21 Pages Posted: 28 Jun 2015
Date Written: June 27, 2015
In ways that slip beneath the doctrinal radar, public defenders often behave like social workers. They find drug treatment and jobs for their clients, and intervene with landlords and employers. Conversely — and ironically — many civil welfare service providers act increasingly like law enforcement officials. Teachers call the police on their students, while welfare case workers often refer their clients for prosecution. This role-switching — by criminal lawyers and civil servants alike — is a function of the tight connection between criminalization and poverty: poor people tend to get swept up in the criminal system and such encounters tend to make people poor. This nexus is particularly powerful in the world of minor offenses and urban policing in which crime, unemployment, racial segregation, and lack of social infrastructure swirl around in one large, nearly inextricable mass. As a result, criminal justice actors are heavily preoccupied with defendants’ social welfare even as the welfare state routinely treats its clients as presumptive criminals. These hydraulic forces affect every official actor — from police officers to prosecutors to emergency room nurses and public school teachers. But public defenders play a special role. Their multi-faceted service commitments to both criminal and welfarist outcomes reveal deep features of the criminal system itself and its conflicted governance relationship to its most vulnerable constituents.
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