Inez Bordeaux is a Rorschach test for how you view poverty.
Seen one way, she is just another black single mother who made bad decisions and is suffering the consequences.
Look closer, and you might see a broken judicial system that punishes some people more than others and does its best to keep poor people poor.
Bordeaux was a nurse. She was a married mother of four. She was doing well for herself.
Then he hit her.
It wasn’t the first time, but this time, the hot skillet swung with force toward her head left several marks. Bordeaux still has trouble hearing in one ear. A scar on her left arm and across her chest reminds her why she left her husband. As she struggled to put her new life as a single mom together, she lost her job and ended up on unemployment. Some temporary nursing gigs helped her make ends meet. In 2010 she got a full-time job again as a nurse. But there was a problem.
Her new income level put her $57 over the monthly limit for the child care help from the state that was allowing her to work by having a safe place for her son and daughter.
“I had a choice,” she remembers now. “Go back to him or keep the money. I did what I had to do.”
Bordeaux knew what she was doing was wrong, but she kept taking unemployment for several months. Eventually she felt stable and stopped.
Then she got caught speeding.
She and her kids were driving back from a family birthday party in Texas. That’s where her mother settled after a career in the Army. A police officer pulled Bordeaux over in Oklahoma. There was a warrant out for her arrest. Unbeknownst to Bordeaux, a grand jury in St. Louis had issued an indictment for felony stealing for taking unemployment benefits beyond what she was due. Stuck in jail out of state for 30 days, Bordeaux’s kids ended up with social services. A conviction would mean the end of her nursing career, so she agreed to a suspended imposition of sentence that would put her on probation, but, she believed, keep a felony off her record. She owed about $12,000 in restitution.
Bordeaux had no criminal record, save for a few traffic tickets. She was a good nurse and had plans to open her own business.
In May 2012, her case popped up in a yearly criminal records search. She lost her job. And her nursing license. “After May, I couldn’t find another job,” she says. “Nobody would hire me because I had a felony.”
By November she was homeless. She sent her kids to live with their father. For three years, she was on the streets, on couches in basements, in a halfway house. She stopped in to see her kids when she could.
“Those three years were hard,” she says. “I was just trying to survive.”
Here’s where things get weird.
The court date
While Bordeaux was homeless, she wasn’t making restitution payments, and she missed a couple of check-ins with her probation officer. So the probation officer went to court to try to revoke her probation.
There she was in circuit court in the city of St. Louis last June. She had no attorney, but when her name was called, public defender Sean Milford recognized her. He had represented her in an earlier probation hearing. Milford looked at her paperwork and came to a realization.
She never should have been charged with a felony.
Bordeaux was one of thousands of Missourians who were improperly charged with felony stealing when a legislative change to the stealing statute in 2002 made cases like hers misdemeanors. It wasn’t until September 2016 that the Missouri Supreme Court overturned similar cases, when a woman named Amanda Bazell challenged the statute and won.
After the Bazell case, there was quite a bit of confusion in state courts over older felony stealing charges. Some prosecutors dismissed them. Some judges overturned them. Others fought to keep the longer sentences in place.
In Bordeaux’s case, city prosecutors fought against dropping the felony against Bordeaux, but the judge agreed with Milford.
“What she was charged with at the time really should have been a misdemeanor,” Milford says. “There are a lot of similarly situated people.”
In fact, in some ways, Bordeaux was lucky.
Last year, the Missouri Legislature fixed the law so that stealing over $500 was once again a felony. And in October, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the Bazell case could not be applied retroactively.
Public defender Tom Bailey, who handled Bazell cases for the Missouri State Public Defender’s office, said that he obtained relief for about 20 defendants in the time before the court determined it would not apply the ruling retroactively. That left about 12,000 defendants stuck with a charge that the court said was unconstitutional at the time it was applied.
Bordeaux looks at that situation and sees an injustice. She paid for her mistake, over and over again. But the state, the prosecutors, and the court who applied the law improperly?
“I accept that I did something wrong,” Bordeaux says. “The state of Missouri took my whole life from me. None of the stuff that happened to me in the past several years would have happened if the state would have done what they were supposed to do.”
His former client’s case stands as not-so-shining example of the “criminalization of poverty,” Milford says.
Last summer Bordeaux walked out of court a free woman. Having already served more than enough probation for what should have been a misdemeanor, her record was wiped clean. She has a job in health care, but it doesn’t pay anywhere near what she made as a nurse. She and her kids crowd into a one-bedroom apartment on the city’s south side. Her oldest daughter, 16, is applying to colleges.
Her life is improving, but the progress is slow.
“I can never get my life back,” Bordeaux says. “Someone needs to tell me why.”