News Release

Police Killing and the Criminalization of Poverty


Video of Walter Scott’s killing has shed a light on the actions of the police officer involved and somewhat, on police conduct generally — but a recently released report highlights how minor infractions ruin lives. The report begins: “Poor people, especially people of color, face a far greater risk of being fined, arrested, and even incarcerated for minor offenses than other Americans. A broken taillight, an unpaid parking ticket, a minor drug offense, sitting on a sidewalk, or sleeping in a park can all result in jail time. In this report, we seek to understand the multi-faceted, growing phenomenon of the ‘criminalization of poverty.'” See PDF of the report.

Huffington Post reports: “The confrontation started when [North Charleston Police Officer Michael] Slager had reportedly pulled over Scott because of a broken taillight. It escalated into a foot chase as Scott allegedly fled because there were family court-issued warrants for his arrest.”

The Los Angeles Times reports: “The victim was engaged to be married and worked for a trucking supply company, L. Chris Stewart [who is representing the Scott family] said. The attorney said Scott was driving a used Mercedes he had recently purchased from a neighbor and was on his way to buy parts for the car when Slager encountered him.”

KAREN DOLAN, karen at, @karendolan
JODI L. CARR, jodicarr at
Dolan is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and directs the Criminalization of Poverty Project. Carr is a research associate with the group and a doctoral student in education policy at George Mason University. They co-wrote a recently-released report: “The Poor Get Prison: The Alarming Spread of the Criminalization of Poverty,” which includes an introduction by Barbara Ehrenreich.

Dolan said today: “The situation that led to the alleged murder of Walter Scott by a white police officer in North Charleston, S.C. is, sadly, indicative of the crisis created by the growing criminalization of poverty in America.

“Poor people are targeted and aggressively policed for minor infractions such as the broken taillight on Mr. Scott’s car. Once pulled over, other debts or warrants for similar misdemeanors may show up, resulting in arrest and jail time and increased spiraling of debt. Lives are ruined.

“When you put that overwrought situation in the middle of the factors that cause racial profiling and aggressive police action against black men, you get the killing of Walter Scott.”

See Dolan’s piece “The Poor Get Prison: The Alarming Spread of the Criminalization of Poverty.”