The annals of history tell us that, across millennia, income redistribution flows upward, from the poor to the rich (like the economics of most of Africa today). The poor, today, would be better off opposing income redistribution, here and now in America, in how their being policed pays the rents of their jailers. Put another way, are the poor better off with Republican neglect or Democratic attention? In matters of the criminal justice system, when we look at the cities that most use their legal systems as revenue streams, we find the answer. An indispensable article on the matter, found not in magazines mouthing for uplift of the poor like Mother Jones or The Nation, but in the organ of capitalism red in tooth and claw, Forbes magazine. This would only surprise non-libertarians. Libertarians see freedom as an integrated whole, social and economic.

In considering the following argument, the reader must (please) be reminded that no society has ever before incarcerated its people as Americans do. We incarcerate more of our people than the rest of the Western world combined. We incarcerate at a higher rate than Russia and China, neither of whom have ever maintained the slightest pretext of being an association of free people, governed by consent.

Democratic cities are more likely to harvest their people for revenue for the carceral system than Republican ones. Harvesting the poor to pay for police and courts is income redistribution from the bottom to the top in its most pernicious historical sense. Worse, historical pluckers did not salt the earth of their victim to stunt their harvest for the future (i.e. the lifelong stigma of an arrest record in our job market). Past harvesting did not make the harvested a permanent social burden on their fellows (the tax payers).

This is very much in line with the confessed experiences of an ex-paramedic friend of mine , now a cop (he’s in Bed-Stuy, the 77 Pct.), who estimates 80% of the people that he encounters in his patrols have misdemeanor (minor) outstanding warrants (the serious criminals have heavily armed warrant squads out looking for them). These minor warrants are for things like peeing in the street or failing to pay a traffic citation. These tickets can amount to three days pay for a poor person, so a scofflaw problem should not have been hard to foresee. Our behavior (“our,” as in the middle class, mostly white NYC residents) would be similar if we were regularly frisked by the police, and came out of such encounters with citations for $500 or more. A theme of his patrol might come in the form of a crackdown on some statistical fetish, say, “open container,” where he will not be welcomed back to the precinct without at least one ding for drinking in public (I can’t resist, cop lingo being so amusing in spite of the conduct, or most likely because of the conduct: our open-container beer swiller will be “rinsed”).

So, my friend the patrolman’s blip in the activity stats matters as much in the overall scheme of keeping the peace as the piece of paper matters to the summonsee. The taxpayer will pay the salary and pension of the patrolman and the whole structure for the producing of the paper. The future livelihood of the scofflaw, now abridged due to an arrest record, will almost certainly become a taxpayer burden in whatever future remains to him.

In New Orleans the government’s harvesting people for revenue in quality of life transgressions seems inversely proportional to their ability to solve “genuine” crimes, with the result that the poor are being harvested by the crime and the crime fighting.

Harvest in micro, harvest in macro: we have reached a milestone. Law enforcement in America has taken via civil asset forfeiture more wealth from Americans than burglars have. It is also telling that, irrespective of the ethics of property seizure by a process that is, to put it mildly, a departure from the American cornerstone legal principle of innocent until proven guilty, the police have created a loop where their productivity serves their fiscal interests. Why must this money be returned to the carceral system that generates it? Just for starters: half of all American prisoners are mentally ill. It says a lot about the state of our nation today that the jailers have first claim of the resources over the doctors.

This all fits into our nation’s historical pattern of entrepreneurial law enforcement. The police were ratcheted up by the Clinton administration in what was perceived as a new crime menace, new forms of cocaine, with the crime spiking (in my opinion), before distribution networks reached equilibrium. But with crime falling (here, like everywhere else in the politically developed world), it was politically impossible too ratchet the police back down again. So (in my opinion), over-policing began, driven, in part, by statistical “jukes” to satisfy law enforcement productivity statistics. “Broken windows” policing became the philosophical overlay for police entry into new law enforcement markets.

The War on Drugs was similarly innovated in a pursuit for a new market by Harry Anslinger, when his office was to be closed along with alcohol prohibition. The War on Drugs has never in our history been correlated to a feedback loop of success or failure. No research or advisory body of addiction medicine has ever called for this approach, just as no body of knowledge in the study of the plight of the poor in America has asked for this madcap incarceration. It is not driven by evolutionary developments in the nature of crime, punishment, or new understandings in the evolving sciences of mental illness and/or drug addiction. It is driven by the internal imperatives of the carceral interests themselves, fueled by very old media tropes that have been built on the foundation of our racist past, affecting people dysfunctional in their ability to use political power. The harvested are remote (living in what are practically racial ghettos), and in a silo apart from the concerns of their theoretical political guardians. These all combine to make political progress on the issue completely stalemated. Here is the schizophrenia of the progressive approach to social control combined with media distortion: The NY Times, with one hand, decries what it sees as a new system of debtors’ prison while, with the other hand, laments the loss of revenue when the police fail to harvest enough tickets during a job action. The article itself notes that the overall serious crime rate changed not a whit.

The irony of the harvest of broken windows policing: taking people for revenue to improve “quality of their life”, and then using the revenue to improve the quality of the lives of the police, should seem similar to the “destroy for their own good” irony of the War on Drugs. What, ethically, should be concluded when people clearly vote with their behavior that they don’t mind “broken windows” (or drugs) to the extend there is widespread acquiesce to the policy in their behavior? Maybe this can be rebranded as a Dr. King-like call for “non violent resistance,” declare victory and walk away from the policies and call it a victory for civil rights.

Eugene Darden Nicholas

About Eugene Darden Nicholas

Eugene Darden (Ed) Nicholas is from Flushing Queens, where he grew up sheltered from the hard world, learning the true things after graduating college and becoming a paramedic in Harlem. School continues to inform and entertain in all its true, Shakespearean glory. It's a lot of fun, really. In that career, dozens of people walk the earth now who would not be otherwise. (The number depends on how literally or figuratively you choose to add). He added a beloved wife to his little family, which is healthy. He is also well blessed in friends and colleagues.


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