The Freedom To Have A Chance

I went to a conference last month. I learned some powerful information that connected the dots for me, information that needs to be shared and discussed. Some serious injustices settle into the fabric of our worldview. Change is necessary and is the only fair response to what is happening to so many people in America. 

So imagine this:
You’re born into a poor family.
In America.
Maybe you live in an inner city.
Go ahead and pick one.
Boston? Philadelphia? Los Angeles?
Your call.
You’re Black or Latino.
Again, your pick.
Maybe your Dad abandoned you and your Mom.
She works two or three jobs to feed, clothe, and shelter you and your siblings.
This means your Mom isn’t really able to be your Mom.
She is mostly forced to be out in the world exchanging all of her time for a little bit of money. 

And then one day you become a teenager and you get drunk with your friends and fall down in the street.

Or you mouth off to a cop.
Or you simply fall asleep on a bus.

A police officer (we’re going to assume he is a man for simplicity sake) happens to see you fall over drunk or fall asleep on a bus or is angry because you’re talking back to him. But, actually he doesn’t just happen to see you. He sees you because he hangs out in your neighborhood disproportionately to other neighborhoods because your neighborhood is a poor neighborhood. So he sees you or hears you, and he arrests you.

You go to jail, and you get a fine.

As previously established, you’re poor so you can’t pay your fine. Then you get hit with some more fines for the stay of your incarceration. Kinda like a hotel stay. Kinda like you had a choice in the whole matter.

Well, now you’re in trouble. You didn’t pay your fine for falling down on the street drunk or for using your voice or for falling asleep on a bus, and you didn’t pay your fine for your prison hotel, so you are now rearrested, and this time you're most likely slapped with a felony. 

Now what does it mean to be charged with a felony in America?

Well, you can’t vote so your voice is deemed worthless. You can’t get a student loan so you are no longer eligible to be educated. You can’t get subsidized housing so your risk of ending up homeless has sky rocketed. And with all of this now go try to get a job. 

Good luck to you. 

According to Lynne Lyman, California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, 500,000 Americans are behind bars on any given night. 2/3 of those are Black and Latino. Rates of drug use and drug selling are the same in all racial groups. Yet we see that minorities are those being targeted, arrested, and suffering the consequences. More than 80% of all drug arrests are for simple drug possessions. 

As civil rights attorney, Lisa Bloom, breaks down, these are the types of crimes poor people in America are arrested for, and this is what happens to them:

“Many people are not aware of the kinds of crimes poor people are getting arrested for. How they begin their lives in the very sticky criminal justice system. And what I mean by sticky is once you’re in it, it’s very, very hard to get out. So here are the types of crimes that poor people in America today are routinely arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and incarcerated for. Things almost everybody in America has done once on this list in your lifetime especially in your youth: 

  • getting drunk and falling down
  • having a joint in their pocket
  • screaming at a lover
  • falling asleep on a bus
  • urinating in an alley
  • mouthing off to a cop

Once in, they are hit with some heavy fines that they generally can’t pay, and then they are jailed for nonpayment. Then they are fined for the cost of their incarceration. Once they get out they can’t pay that and then they’re reincarcerated and the second time it’s often a felony offense. Once you have a felony on your record you can forget about getting a job. You can forget about serving on a jury. You can forget about voting. You can’t get subsidized housing. And you can’t even get a student loan when you get out and want to go to school and try to better yourself. If you can’t get subsidized housing, often that renders you homeless. And you don’t have access to your kids because you can’t get child custody if you don’t have a place to live. Drivers licenses are often suspended. You can’t enlist in the military. And in the majority of states you can’t vote. Ever. For the rest of your life. And you certainly can’t serve on a jury which is why juries are so disproportionately white in America.”

And this is our problem. It’s not just the problem of the poor, the victims of an unjust system. At the core we have been a country of people pushing for freedom and equality for all, not just for some. The first step is understanding the truth of a broken, unjust system. Allowing hopelessness to paralyze us is a choice that leaves us weak when we are powerful. This is about the freedom to have a chance, something all human beings deserve.


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