Every time I write about the intersection of poverty and the courts, I hear from a few empathy-challenged readers.
“People shouldn’t break the law,” they will say.
Or: “If you don’t want to go to jail, don’t skip your court hearing.”
They’re not wrong. Those are good pieces of advice.
The problem comes in when the judicial system actually works to exacerbate poverty or discourage people from turning to law enforcement for help.
Dr. Gary Gaddis gets it.
He is a professor of emergency medicine at Washington University and often serves a shift in the emergency room at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.
Last Friday, he had a patient who was a victim of domestic violence.
The woman, Gaddis says, wouldn’t make a report to police because she feared going to jail herself and losing her child. “This fear was grounded in a knowledge that she had failed to appear to a compelled court date, which was scheduled to resolve a traffic violation,” Gaddis told me.
Gaddis is well trained in spotting the signs of domestic abuse, something that he sees regularly in the ER. He’s a former member of a board of advisers for a shelter in Kansas City.
The woman’s story, he says, was fairly typical:
“The guy was said to have started out as charming, then took over greater and greater degrees of power and control. He soon controlled all of the money and made her account for every penny,” Gaddis says. “He stood outside the bathroom door when she went to the bathroom to be sure she was not ‘up to anything’. He isolated her from her family and friends as much as she would tolerate. He belittled her. He compelled her to become pregnant. She did not wish to become pregnant, as she had previously had a ‘high-risk’ pregnancy.”
Gaddis encouraged her to call police and seek an order of protection.
She wouldn’t do it. An outstanding traffic warrant has her convinced that police will arrest her if they come in contact with her. She lives in fear that she’ll lose her child, who will end up with her abuser or in foster care.
This is not an unusual belief, and it’s magnified among people living in poverty, whether in the city or some rural Missouri counties.
“It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Gaddis says. “These abusers won’t let people out to go to their hearings.”
Then they have warrants, and the fear begins.
“They’re afraid to lose their children. They’re afraid to lose the roof over their head,” he says. “Public safety gets compromised.”
It’s that way with victims of domestic violence; with undocumented immigrants, who fear deportation and losing their children, who are often citizens; and with women who don’t have the resources to bail out of jail.
That’s what happened to Bordeaux, six years ago. You might remember her. I wrote about her in March. She got arrested after being ticketed for speeding. Turns out she had a warrant out for her arrest, after a grand jury indicted her on taking more unemployment benefits than she deserved. Her kids ended up with social services while she was stuck in jail for 30 days. She became homeless. Later she would end up in the city workhouse because she didn’t check in with a probation officer. She lost her nursing license.
Eventually, with the help of a public defender and the nonprofit ArchCity Defenders law firm, she fought back. The stealing charge was dropped. She is helping to lead the “Close the Workhouse” movement that wants the release of most of the nonviolent defendants held there because they can’t afford bail. Bordeaux has her nursing license back, and a job, and her kids.
What Gaddis sees regularly in the emergency room is that the judicial system treats some people — those without resources — differently than it does the rest of us.
He thinks that’s a shame.
“Isn’t that awful?” Gaddis asks. “In the United States, one of the world’s most wealthy nations, poor persons can’t count on the protection of the state and on the protection of law enforcement, when society’s interests are best served by getting the abuser off the street?”