Lawyers Have A Role To Play In Decriminalizing Poverty

Sep 5, 2017

After riots erupted Ferguson, Mo. following the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown, investigations revealed that the entire criminal justice system in St. Louis County – not just the police department – levied massive amounts of fines and fees on its poorest citizens in order to fund itself.

It was a wake-up call for the nation, and one organization had already been in place working on these issues for five years.

This week on 90.5 WESA’s Criminal Injustice podcast, University of Pittsburgh law professor and host David Harris returns with the show's fourth season. His first guest, Thomas Harvey, is the co-founder and executive director of Arch City Defenders, which takes a holistic approach to combating what it calls "the criminalization of poverty and state violence against poor people and people of color."

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

DAVID HARRIS: What is the organization? Tell us about it.

THOMAS HARVEY: We're a nonprofit provider of holistic legal advocacy to poor people and indigent people in the St. Louis region. And we provide civil and criminal legal services, as well connect people to social services to try to essentially address the underlying reasons that came in contact with the legal system. And we bring class action civil rights litigation to effect systemic change as well.

HARRIS: What is holistic defense service? Or holistic legal advocacy?

HARVEY: The bottom line is we're trying to treat the whole person. The lawyers are targeting and fighting on behalf of the person to try to resolve their moment of crisis, which is contact with the legal system. But almost all of our clients have got a mental health problem, a substance abuse problem, a housing problem, a need for job training or some sort of mental health treatment. And without that support, they are never going to be able to essentially escape from contact with the legal system, so our effort is to provide them with all the services necessary to avoid future contact of the legal system and to let them get back on their own feet and live their lives.

HARRIS: Arch City had been around for five years when Ferguson erupted in the fall of 2014. What did you folks know that the rest of us were only hearing about for the first time?

HARVEY: We have heard since the first day, and we've done work here, that [shows] the municipal courts and the tickets were not about public safety. They were about the money, and they were about policing black people in St. Louis. Our clients have been telling us since day one that if you're black and poor in St. Louis, no one listens to you. And that cities like Ferguson have been arresting them, ticketing them and jailing them for not only their whole life, but their parents' lives and their grandparents' lives. And they had absolutely, positively no trust in the representatives of these municipalities in this region.

HARRIS: Arch City has also taken on the homelessness problem. What can lawyers do to help the homeless?

HARVEY: Many legal problems prevent homeless folks from getting access to the services services they need. In our situation, what they needed was warrants resolved in order to get access to job training in order to get housing. In other communities, contact with the legal system that -- for instance, an eviction -- a past eviction and a debt owed to a homeowner will prevent them from getting into new housing as a policy matter. And if you can work out some kind of deal or some kind of payment arrangement with the previous debtor, then you can open up this person the possibility of housing. Those are the types of things we do. We also sue on behalf of homeless people to make sure that the conditions in shelters allow them to live with dignity and respect.

HARRIS: I have law students in my own classes who look around and they see some of these very difficult problems you've put your finger on. They really don't know what to do, how to start or what they can do to help. What would you tell them?

HARVEY: Same thing I tell all the law students, which is to go out in your community. Go to the jails. Go to the shelters. Sit down and talk to people and ask them what brought them there that day. I guarantee you that they're going to tell you a story of contact with the legal system at some point that either created or exacerbated their poverty. And there are ways that even brand new lawyers can help resolve those problems that will contribute to a person's [well being], either preventing them from getting on the streets or helping them get off the streets. I think what it really takes is a willingness to be humble and listen to people who've had much more experience with this system than you have and let them guide you in what you need to do to help them. Your legal skills can only go so far without the advice and trust of somebody who's had much deeper experience in the system.

You can hear more from David Harris’s conversation with Thomas Harvey on this week’s episode of WESA’s Criminal Injustice podcast. Subscribe on iTunes or through your favorite podcast app.