Pearl River We would all like to believe that when we talk about children, lower-income families, and the justice system that we are talking about horses that are all hitched to the same wagon and going in the best and right direction for all. Talking to Daniel Hatcher, a law professor at the University of Baltimore and a seasoned legal aid and poverty lawyer on Wade’s World, it’s clear that we’re living in a dream world, if that’s what we believe. The reality, in one instance after another detailed in his book, Injustice, Inc.: How America’s Justice System Commodifies Children and the Poor, sets your hair on fire over the mercenary practices and craven disinterest about the adverse impacts on any of the communities these institutions are designed to serve.
As a lawyer, Hacker is apoplectic about what I would call the paradox of those accused of some legal infraction or penalty having to literally pay for the court system that is supposedly impartially adjudicating their misdeeds by profiting directly either from payments of the fine or being incentivized to penalize the individual, family, or child. It’s not just the abolitionists’ question of “would we need courts, police, and prisons, if there were less crime,” but a case of judges manipulating the system and especially the funding streams to keep people in detention, pile on the fines and fees, and create a debt trap enslaving both the innocent and the guilty in the cycle.
Having been an organizer for welfare rights throughout my career, first with NWRO and on an ongoing basis with ACORN, his examples of the way that child support so often pits the poor against the poor were particularly poignant. The system wants to avoid paying welfare to women with children, preferring to offload some or all of the costs on child support payments by the fathers. In most cases in our communities, the fathers are also barely making it economically. If and when they fall behind on their payments, they can have their checks garnisheed, and even end up in jail for nonpayment, where there is no way that they can earn any money to support the family. The women are pushed to name and shame the fathers, but hesitate to do so because of fear for the family, trepidation of abuse, and alienating the fathers from the children. If they try to rebuild the family and let the fathers back in the house, then they also lose their small welfare payments. This is an example of a system designed to fail even though it continues unabated even after studies have determined it is broken in one state after another.
Hatcher’s research state by state unravels how the courts or other pieces of the supposed justice system have hijacked the process so that essentially when it comes to issues involving juveniles, foster care, and probation, they are judge and jury, handling determinations, placements, and the question of the individual’s continuance in the system. Sometimes they have done this by order and agreement, and in other cases by subcontracting to private companies and taking a hefty percentage of the loot. Hatcher notes how it erodes any constitutional separation of powers, which of course offends him as a lawyer and scholar, but also for him and the rest of us, means that less and less of the money gets where it was needed and designed which is to the child or family.
I’ve only touched the surface. Injustice, Inc. exposes a litany of abuses for children and the poor trapped in the system. Going page by page where I had highlighted one abuse after another, it almost seemed hopeless, though Hatcher notes that various lawsuits have been filed, and there have been some local ordinances and legislative remedies proposed and enacted. Hatcher hopes that those responsible for these systems will remember their mission and practice ethics. Those of us who are more cynical find here a system without a moral compass where predatory practices have now become commonplace and extorting money from the misfortune and destroying the lives of the vulnerable seems to simply have become a business model, making a lie of any pretense to being a justice system, when its true aims are only either punishment or pecuniary.