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How A Debt To Society Can Come With Interest

Melvin Bain, a homeless Navy veteran, says a criminal record that included nonviolent offenses that he says makes it hard for him to find a job and get back on his feet.
Tim Lloyd
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St. Louis Public Radio
Melvin Bain, a homeless Navy veteran, says a criminal record that included nonviolent offenses that he says makes it hard for him to find a job and get back on his feet.

Let’s say you’ve been arrested for something minor, like misdemeanor trespassing.  Odds are that you’ll plead guilty; that’s what court data indicate.  And in this hypothetical situation, we’ll say that you’re able to come up with the money to pay the fine.  You figure this alleged transgression is behind you, and now you can move on with your life.

But not so fast. Even pleading guilty to a misdemeanor can come with some other penalties.  These are called collateral consequences, and they're the focus of this episode of We Live Here.

According to research by the American Bar Association (ABA), between state and federal laws there are more than 46,000 collateral consequences in America.     

“If you have an individual who has previously abused children or the elderly, I don’t think that many people would argue that it’s unreasonable for us to say that individual should never work in a daycare center or never work caring for the elderly," said Lucian Dervan, an associate professor of law and director of faculty development at Southern Illinois University School of Law.   

The problem, Dervan said, is that many collateral consequences  treat all crimes the same. So it doesn't matter if  you  were charged with driving without a license or  trafficking drugs, you’d still face some of the same penalties.

“It can affect social services, employment, licenses you might have for your employment, your housing opportunities, student loans, parental rights, immigration status, volunteer opportunities. The list really goes on and on,” Dervan said.  

For poor people, these extra penalties can make breaking the cycle of poverty that much harder.  So, on this episode we take a look at how a debt to society can come with interest.    

     

Collateral Consequences in Missouri

  • Missouri has about 900 laws that can be classified as collateral consequences, according to the ABA database.
  • Many deal with drug offenses. For instance, if you’re found guilty of making or distributing a controlled substance -- no matter how many treatment or restorative justice programs you go through -- you are no longer eligible for protection against unlawful housing practices or discrimination in commercial real estate loans.
  • About 350 of the collateral consequences listed by the ABA are discretionary. Of those, 201 apply to professional licenses. For example you could lose your barber’s license for being found guilty or pleading guilty to any offense involving moral turpitude, which is doing something considered contrary to community standards of justice, honesty or good morals.

The ABA database doesn’t include extra consequences that can come with violating municipal codes. Between the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County there are 82 municipal courts. For a poor person who can’t afford something as simple as a municipal traffic ticket, the offenses can snowball into problems like a warrant for arrest and jail time, and that could ultimately result in job loss.
For more than a decade Better Family Life, a nonprofit social service provider, has partnered with municipalities to offer warrant forgiveness to prevent jail time and possible job loss. In exchange for $100, a participant can get a warrant lifted and a new court date set, but he’d still be on the hook to pay fines. James Clark is vice president of community outreach for Better Family Life. Listen below as he tells us about what’s commonly referred to as the round robin. 

How A Debt To Society Can Come With Interest
James Clark is vice president of community outreach for Better Family Life talks about warrants and jobloss.

Who you’ll meet in the podcast:

Lucian Dervan is an associate professor of law and director of faculty development at Southern Illinois University School of Law. He says someone could plead guilty to a misdemeanor that doesn’t carry jail time and end up with a legal shadow that follows them around for the rest of their life.

Melvin Bain, a homeless Navy veteran, stands under an Interstate 44 overpass where he used to sleep on rainy nights.  These days, he’s crashing with a friend in Soulard.  Bain says a criminal record has made it hard to get back on his feet.
Credit Tim Lloyd | St. Louis Public Radio
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Melvin Bain, a homeless Navy veteran, stands under an Interstate 44 overpass where he used to sleep on rainy nights. These days, he’s crashing with a friend in Soulard. Bain says his criminal record has made it hard to get back on his feet.

Melvin Bain is a navy veteran who ended up with a criminal record and is homeless. Bain is trying to get back on his feet, but he’s struggling with finding employment.  

Stephanie Lummus is an attorney with the Arch City Defenders. The nonprofit offers free legal services to poor people. Lummus mostly works with homeless people who  are facing a tangled web of issues, from housing to run-ins with the law.  

Stephanie Lummus, an attorney the Arch City Defenders, digs through case files. The nonprofit offers free legal services to poor people.  She says even small criminal violations can make breaking the cycle of poverty that much harder.
Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio
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St. Louis Public Radio
Stephanie Lummus, an attorney the Arch City Defenders, digs through case files. The nonprofit offers free legal services to poor people. She says even small criminal violations can make breaking the cycle of poverty that much harder.

Latricia Solomon became ensnared in the system after failing to pay traffic tickets and missing court dates. At the time, Latricia was homeless. She’d  left her husband, whom she said was abusive and on drugs. She had an eight year old and was pregnant with twins. She had hardly any money, no home and was driving around with expired plates, which resulted in tickets. Her failure to pay for her violations and appear in court resulted in a warrant for her arrest.

Latricia Solomon had four warrants for her arrest after failing to pay traffic tickets and missing court dates. At the time Solomon was homeless and pregnant with twins. Standing in front of her former home in south St. Louis, she says warrants on her rec
Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio
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St. Louis Public Radio
Latricia Solomon had four warrants for her arrest after failing to pay traffic tickets and missing court dates. At the time Solomon was homeless and pregnant with twins. Standing in front of her former home in south St. Louis, she says warrants on her record made it hard to leave an emergency shelter and get into a transitional housing program.

Changes on the horizon

  • A bill sitting on Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s desk would limit the revenue a municipality can generate from traffic fines. But, as St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum explains, the bill could have unintended consequences.
  • There’s a push to "ban the box." This would basically remove the part on an employment application that asks if you've been convicted of a crime. Locally, late last year, the city of St. Louis stopped asking job seekers if they’ve been convicted of a felony.
  • Some federal agencies are exploring ways to reduce collateral consequences.  The Small Business Administration, has proposed changing its eligibility rules for a micro loan so people on probation and parole are not automatically excluded. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is taking a look at barriers faced by people with criminal records who are trying to enter the health care workforce. And Ex-Offender grants from the U.S Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Labor can now be used to help expunge criminal records, secure drivers licenses, modify child support orders and litigate inappropriate denials housing.        
  • The MacArthur Foundation just gave $150,000 to a local coalition that includes law enforcement and researchers at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The goal is to better understand who is coming into the municipal court system in St. Louis and why they’re ending up in jail.  
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Emanuele Berry is a 2012 graduate of Michigan State University. Prior to coming to St. Louis she worked as a talk show producer at WKAR Public Radio in Michigan. Emanuele also interned at National Public Radio, where she worked at the Arts and Information Desk. Her work has been recognized by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio Television Digital News Association and the Hearst Journalism Awards Program. Berry worked with St. Louis Public Radio from 2014 to 2015.
Tim Lloyd was a founding host of We Live Here from 2015 to 2018 and was the Senior Producer of On Demand and Content Partnerships until Spring of 2020.

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