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Is poverty criminalized in Peoria? A lawyer provides her take

Workers prepare to take a tent used by people experiencing homelessness to a garbage truck, Friday, March 11, 2022, during the clearing and removal of several tents at an encampment in Westlake Park in downtown Seattle.
Ted S. Warren
Workers prepare to take a tent used by people experiencing homelessness to a garbage truck during the clearing and removal of several tents at an encampment in Westlake Park in downtown Seattle.

The criminalization of poverty can appear in communities in many different ways. A Richwoods High School alumni is trying to shed light on the issue through emphasizing the importance of research within this larger conversation.

Alexus McNally is a lawyer who moved to the Peoria area in 2012 when her sister decided to attend Bradley University. After graduating high school and attending college at Georgia State University, McNally realized she wanted to have more of an international career during a study abroad trip in England.

From there, she traveled all around Europe, eventually deciding to pursue law school that led to more international travels. Now a lawyer, her journey recently led her to South Africa where she spoke at a conference held by The Campaign to Decriminalize Poverty and Status on how research can be used to advance the goals of the campaign, inform policy decisions, and educate the public on these issues.

Alexus McNally
Alexus McNally

“So, what the campaign seeks to address are issues where individuals are arrested, detained, convicted, because they are poor, not necessarily because of any any actions that they've done, or because they are of a particular race, or ethnicity, or religion, or gender or sexual orientation," explained McNally.

"And so that's what's encompassed within this status category. So, in addition to that, there's migrant status and then also activists such as protesters, and so the conference is seeking to address all of the underlying reasons why individuals that fit into those categories are in jail.”

McNally notes that criminalizing poverty can take many forms, and the homeless is a population that is frequently targeted.

“Examples of this include our vagrancy laws, where individuals are essentially criminalized just for being outside at the wrong place at the wrong time," she said. "Being in a park with a blanket, sleeping, these behaviors are criminalized in laws all across our nation…For me, what was most impactful from the research was seeing the various insidious ways in which basic life-sustaining activities are criminalized throughout nations all over the world. So from petty theft, to sex work, to loitering, to doing basic hygiene activities like washing in public, sometimes eating in public.”

Most likely, she added, people who have a home to go back to will not experience the same sorts of punishments as someone who does not.

“These laws against begging, petty theft, sex work, or street vending, you name it. Those are essentially proxies for criminalizing particular people who are poor…these are the kinds of laws that we have on our books specifically to target homeless populations, because we see these individuals as a nuisance because society sees these individuals as a nuisance,” McNally said.

Cash bail is another example of poverty being criminalized in action, according to McNally. In Illinois, cash bail will be abolished on Jan. 1, 2023.

“So, the issue with bail is that anyone who can afford to pay it is immediately able to walk free and be free pending their trial. So essentially, the only people who are remaining incarcerated, remaining in jail, are poor people. And so, this is just another way in which society is curving who is allowed to be on the streets,” said McNally, adding bail is not indicative of someone’s innocence or guilt.

Here in Peoria, McNally said she’s personally noticed a large uptick in the number of homeless people.

“In my opinion, not enough is still being done,” she said. “We need more resources. We need individuals who are trained and dedicated towards assisting individuals that are homeless and getting the help that they need and helping them get to where they need to go.”

She also believes there are several misdemeanors included in Peoria’s Code of Ordinances adopted from the Illinois Criminal Code, like pandering, public indecency, prostitution, disorderly conduct, and trespassing, that criminalize poverty in the city.

“Laws like these seek to control and behaviors deemed by the status quo to be a nuisance, such as disorderly conduct, and curb economic and commercial activity deemed to be inappropriate, such as sex work. It’s important to note that violating these ordinances immediately results in fines, which do accrue interest, and if unpaid may result in jail time,” McNally explained in a written summary she provided to WCBU about Peoria ordinances she feels criminalizes poverty.

She said the problem with “disorderly conduct,” defined by the law as “any act in such unreasonable manner as to alarm or disturb another and to provoke a breach of the peace,” is too broad and can apply to a number of behaviors that aren’t typically believed to be criminal.

“In the interest of fairness and justice, overly broad and vague laws such as these which disproportionately impact poor people and people of color must be amended in our city and nationwide,” McNally added in her summary.

She said the other part of this issue is the criminalization that occurs for actions done to numb the sting of poverty itself.

“These are things including, you know, drug use, especially in poor communities. There are often few outlets for people to be able to enjoy life and at an affordable price. There are no parks or parks are too dangerous. People can't afford to be outside without a cost to their life or a cost to their pocket,” said McNally.

When considering potential solutions to these issues, McNally said acknowledging the problem is the first step, along with realizing who has the power to enact change.

“In our city, of course, it's the people that are running our government, that are running our institutions. Our police have power, our judges have power, our prosecutors have power. Those are the main actors in our city and throughout the nation on these issues of decriminalizing poverty and status. And then we have our lawmakers, of course, who have the ability to change these laws," she said.

"And so if we take a step back, and we acknowledge that we have some bias laws on our books, that paves the way for us to then look at our laws and from there strike, rephrase the laws that we have on our books to be more just and more fair and more equitable and to actually target the behaviors that are truly criminal.”

The Peoria Code of Ordinances can be found here.

Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant program and development director, All Things Considered host, as well as the producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.