Washington Lawyer - April/May 2018 - 40
Join us in
2018 winner of the
for Civil Rights &
in recognition of
his devoted, skillful
on behalf of poor
residents of the
District of Columbia.
Review by Ronald Goldfarb
ne of the sad things about
growing older is observing
that so many continuing
social problems don't get better.
Commentators demonstrate that
poor people get inadequate health
and legal services. They are imprisoned disproportionately, and prisons
are ugly, expensive, and counterproductive. Exploited farmworkers
toil to bring food to our tables, but
they encounter cruel living conditions.
The legal system ignores the needs of
poor people, and capital punishment
is unfairly administered. To borrow
the classic line from Casablanca,
"I'm shocked, shocked to find that
gambling is going on in here."
In Not a Crime to Be Poor: The Criminalization of
Poverty in America, Georgetown University Law
Center professor Peter Edelman, whose career has
focused on the needs of the poor and the American
welfare system, reminds readers that the bar, courts,
police, and our justice and social agencies haven't
improved conditions in the decades since the
systemic faults he criticizes were pointed out in
the past half century by critics, studies, and books.
The experts who created the Office of Economic
Opportunity (I was on the staff half a century ago)
dealt with the issues Edelman describes.
The inequities of the bail system that Edelman and,
recently, California Sen. Kamala Harris have noted,
were all revealed in the National Conference on Bail
and Criminal Justice that Attorney General Robert F.
Kennedy generated in the 1960s. My 1965 book,
Ransom: A Critique of the American Bail System,
described that problem and suggested reforms.
Legislation was passed. The problem remains.
The recent criticisms of conservatives about the
excessive costs of our incarceration system now
blends with ageless liberals' indictments of the
inhumane nature of our prison and jail systems,
long noted. Privatization has not improved on
the failures of government.
As Bernie Sanders has reminded us, our rich country
still insists on minimum wage laws that keep poor
workers impoverished, and our public schools are
inadequate. As Yul Brynner sang in The King and I,
"Etcetera and etcetera."
Edelman traveled the United States to observe
exemplary child and family programs in Tulsa,
Oklahoma; educational programs in Chicago;
children's services in Minneapolis; homeless
reforms in Brooklyn, New York; health consortiums
in Alameda, California; and behavioral programs
in New Haven, Connecticut.
The problem is not lack of good ideas or model
programs, but the commitment by government
and private agencies to inculcate them in lasting
ways, and dare I suggest for religious organizations
to practice what they preach. My social worker
daughter worked in New York City public schools
after school hours to provide social services to
needy children in facilities that generally closed
after three o'clock. Great idea. The state withdrew
funding, and the program ended.
Bless the Peter Edelmans who don't desert their
moral positions. Edelman calls the criminalization
of the poor a calamity and deplores the nation's
unwillingness to correct it. "[W]e lack the will to act
as a nation to rectify these problems," he concludes,
blaming "national attitudes about both poverty
We old-timers wonder if clear messages like his will
ever lead to lasting, systemic reforms. The fundamental question is: How do we get from the
message to the solution?
Ronald Goldfarb is an attorney, author, and literary
agent in Washington, D.C. Read more of his work at