Not a Crime to Be Poor

The Criminalization of Poverty in America

Winner of a special Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, the book that Evicted author Matthew Desmond calls “a powerful investigation into the ways the United States has addressed poverty. . . . lucid and troubling”

“Essential reading for anyone trying to understand the demands of social justice in America.” —Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy

In one of the richest countries on Earth it has effectively become a crime to be poor. For example, in Ferguson, Missouri, the U.S. Department of Justice didn’t just expose racially biased policing; it also exposed exorbitant fines and fees for minor crimes that mainly hit the city’s poor, African American population, resulting in jail by the thousands. As Peter Edelman explains in Not a Crime to Be Poor, in fact Ferguson is everywhere: the debtors’ prisons of the twenty-first century. The anti-tax revolution that began with the Reagan era led state and local governments, starved for revenues, to squeeze ordinary people, collect fines and fees to the tune of 10 million people who now owe $50 billion.

Nor is the criminalization of poverty confined to money. Schoolchildren are sent to court for playground skirmishes that previously sent them to the principal’s office. Women are evicted from their homes for calling the police too often to ask for protection from domestic violence. The homeless are arrested for sleeping in the park or urinating in public.

A former aide to Robert F. Kennedy and senior official in the Clinton administration, Peter Edelman has devoted his life to understanding the causes of poverty. As Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy has said, “No one has been more committed to struggles against impoverishment and its cruel consequences than Peter Edelman. ” And former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert writes, “If there is one essential book on the great tragedy of poverty and inequality in America, this is it.”

Praise

“This compelling, insightful examination of how we demonize the poor and sustain poverty through our misguided policies is essential reading for anyone trying to understand the demands of social justice in America. Sharp, critical analysis of an issue too frequently ignored.”
—Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy
“A comprehensive, readable, and shocking examination of the criminalization of poverty, and punishments that consist of fines and fees the poor cannot afford and conditions they cannot meet.”
—Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights
“The intersection of race, poverty, and the criminal justice system is compellingly examined in Peter Edelman’s new book, Not a Crime to Be Poor. It should be required reading for all those who seek equal justice in our nation.”
—Judge Jonathan Lippman, former fhief judge of the New York Court of Appeals
“An extraordinary exposé of the criminalization of poverty, a vivid explanation of its many guises, and an inspiring call and guide to reform. Over the past half century no one has been more committed to struggles against impoverishment and its cruel consequences than Peter Edelman. Not a Crime to Be Poor is another chapter in his admirable career.”
—Randall Kennedy, professor, Harvard Law School
“A chilling exposé of how America’s courts, once bastions of justice, now routinely degrade themselves, and the nation, by ruthlessly extracting resources from our nation’s most vulnerable citizens, rendering it a crime to be too poor to pay. It also names names—both the names of the villains who chose to exploit the poor and the heroes who fight back. Please read this book.”
—Kathryn Edin, co-author of $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America

News and Reviews

Not a Crime to Be Poor Honored by RFK Awards

Peter Edelman and his current New Press book, Not a Crime to Be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America, were recently included as part of t

Books by Peter Edelman

So Rich, So Poor
Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America

Peter Edelman