Laura Browder and the Punishment Economy

Laura Browder, a single mother of a two and a six-year-old, had just moved to Houston and was trying to start her life there by getting a job. Called in for a last-minute job interview, she had no one to watch her kids, so she decided to bring them and station them 30 yards away in the food court. Her joy at being offered the job was crushed when she was arrested for “abandoning” her children despite the fact that she was close by.

This event reflects two deeply troubling trends in the United States. First, the fact that Laura was black no doubt played a role in her criminalization. Black women are incarcerated at much higher rates than white women: 1 in 18 vs. 1 in 111. Sandra Bland, Dajerria Becton from McKinney, Texas, Rekia Boyd, and many others show how police target black women.

From a larger perspective, it shows the punishment economy that we currently have. Rather than spend to fix the underlying issues, America punishes people, disrupting their lives and the lives of their family and community members.

Browder’s case is the perfect example of one that could have easily been solved by community-focused programming. If she had access to affordable childcare, she would never have been arrested. This problem is not unique to her.

Shanesha Taylor made headlines last year when she, a homeless black woman, left her kids in her car (with the windows cracked) while she took a job interview and ended up in jail with two felony charges, her children taken away by Child Protective Services, and no job.

Lack of free or affordable childcare leaves single mothers in a catch 22: without a job, they cannot afford childcare which would allow them to search for and maintain a job. The situation becomes even worse when the criminal justice system is thrown into the mix.

Criminalizing moms because they failed to secure childcare will not help the children. In fact, locking up mothers punishes their families almost as much as the mothers themselves. They are forced to find someone else to stay with, and if that is not possible, the children are taken by CPS (as with Shanesha Taylor’s children) and put into the foster care system, which is often traumatic. Rather than disruptive and dehumanizing incarceration, affordable, quality childcare would have made a positive difference (not to mention at a much lower cost).

This is a clear case of how resources can prevent and replace incarceration, but there are many more examples. Homeless people are routinely harassed by police, arrested and put in jail essentially for the “crime” of having nowhere else to go, while giving them stable housing would allow them to get back on their feet. Salt Lake City has reduced chronic homelessness by 72% with a simple solution—giving people a home.

Similarly, people incarcerated for drug dealing, petty fraud, theft and other illegal ways of making money would often not have engaged in these behaviors if they had opportunities in the formal economy that matched with their skill sets and paid a living wage. Jobs and job training could divert many people from these harmful paths. The examples go on and on, because our criminal justice system relies on punishing people for economic failures instead of helping them overcome them.

Laura Browder is one of many people whose criminalization could have easily been avoided by justice reinvestment, rather than a punitive mindset.