Our legal system targets poor people, and then makes it more likely that they will both stay poor and stay in legal trouble. A huge factor here is debt. People accumulate debt as they navigate the system itself, and being torn from one’s home, job, and support systems compounds any debt a person may have had before being arrested. Once a person is finally released from the criminal legal system, they face massive debt, which makes recovery and stability feel impossible. The weight of debt impacts a person’s material well-being, as well as their emotional well-being and the well-being of their families and loved ones.
It is no coincidence that debt accumulation and mass incarceration spiked in tandem: the same policies that forced people into poverty and overwhelmed them with debt and poor credit also criminalized poverty and led to huge spikes in arrests and incarceration. In order to minimize the harm caused by debt and its side effects, we must minimize the harm of the criminal legal system by reducing arrests and incarceration.
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