Committee Fellows Tackle Intersections of Criminal System and Poverty

In America, nearly 1 in 3 adults have a criminal record. About 100 million people. Communities of color are policed, arrested, and convicted at disproportionate rates, and so are hit harder by the severe collateral consequences of carrying a conviction record. In DC, African Americans are incarcerated at about 19 times the rate of Whites.

Returning citizens are often denied jobs or housing due to minor or irrelevant criminal records, forcing them into persistent poverty. In the DC-Baltimore area, about 16,000 residents are released from incarceration each year. Nearly half of this returning citizen community is jobless or homeless with little prospect of finding consistent work.

On the flip side of the prison-poverty pipeline, being poor is criminalized through unjust bail, fines, fees, and other court debt. Sometimes people are incarcerated just because they cannot pay a fine or fee. Modern-day debtors’ prisons are here in our backyard in DC, Maryland, and Virginia.

Marques and Tiffany photoThe Washington Lawyers’ Committee is hosting two fellows tackling the intersections between the criminal system and poverty. Tiffany Yang, our Skadden Fellow, will challenge the collateral consequences of criminal system involvement. Marques Banks, our Covington & Burling Equal Justice Works Fellow, will challenge the ways the criminal system punishes people who are unable to pay court debt. They will build on the Committee’s efforts to reduce the impact of an unfair criminal system, such as the recent WMATA settlement  that changed a background check policy that barred certain job applicants—a disproportionate number of whom were African Americans—and won relief for 2,000 class members.

Growing up in St. Louis, Tiffany took note of how poverty itself was often criminalized when poor families she served as a volunteer were fined and punished for offenses such as loitering, jailed when they couldn’t pay fines, then faced with collateral consequences of unemployment and homelessness. She also witnessed how difficult it was for her immigrant parents to overcome economic and language barriers when attempting to challenge the injustices in their lives. She dove into these intersectional issues while in law school, where she co-created a short documentary film, contributed to language access and right-to-protest policy initiatives, and represented clients in deportation, criminal resentencing, expungement, benefits, and eviction proceedings. At the Committee, she will use her voice to protect returning citizens from persistent discrimination and disrupt their cycle of poverty.

Marques joins the Committee from The Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law. While at law school, Marques traveled to Ferguson, Missouri during the non-indictment of Darren Wilson to aid the Ferguson Legal Defense Committee. Marques stayed in contact with the committee and assisted on the fines and fees issues that were plaguing Ferguson. He noticed that these issues were very similar to the ones he experienced growing up in Detroit. Seeing friends and family caught in what seemed like a never-ending cycle with the criminal justice system all over petty fines, fees, and offenses prompted him to become an advocate for change. Marques helped create Black Movement-Law Project, an organization that provides legal support to the Black Lives Matter movement. He provided legal support in Ferguson, Baltimore, and various cities across the nation, training hundreds of legal observers. “I want to serve the community in a way I wished some served my community,” he says.

We are thrilled to have Tiffany and Marques join the Washington Lawyers’ Committee team, and are very grateful to their respective sponsors, the Skadden Fellowship Foundation and Covington & Burling, LLP.

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