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2008 Stories

Henderson Center Spring Symposium to Examine Criminalization of Poverty

What do sleeping outside or in a car, soliciting employment, convening in a public space, and suffering from a mental illness in public have in common? All are citable offenses in the United States.

Thursday and Friday of this week, March 6-7, the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice will address the impact of punishing such behavior at its annual Spring Symposium. The event, entitled "Whose Poverty? Whose Crime? Unlocking the Criminalization of Poverty," takes place Thursday at Booth Auditorium and Friday in the Goldberg Room (297 Simon Hall).

Most people are shocked to learn that it can be a crime to be poor in this country," says Henderson Center director Mary Louise Frampton. "Skyrocketing poverty rates, disappearing affordable housing, lack of health care, growing unemployment, and underfunded public education are now facts of life in our nation. Our response is to punish those who bear the brunt of these conditions we have created, the most vulnerable people in our society. America is better than this." 

With municipalities ramping up efforts to "clean up" homelessness, more people are enduring interaction with police—resulting in harassment, abuse, and even incarceration. Symposium events will explore short and long-term solutions from legislative and community perspectives, and examine the impact of criminalizing poverty on the poor and on American society.

Areas of focus include state action, the infrastructure that sustains legal and economic vulnerabilities of America’s poor, current laws and policies that criminalize the poor, effects of media labeling, strategies for challenging status crimes, changing trial courts’ approach toward homelessness and poverty, and educating decision-makers and the public about the failures of current public policy on punishment.

"We’ll have a vibrant and diverse group of academics, practitioners, activists and journalists who are all doing cutting-edge work to combat the criminalization of poverty," says Frampton.

Northwestern University School of Law professor Dorothy Roberts will give the Robert D. and Leslie Kay Raven Lecture on Access to Justice, the symposium’s keynote address, Thursday at 4 p.m. An award-winning author, Roberts is on the board of directors of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform and Black Women’s Health Imperative, and serves on a five-person panel overseeing foster care reform in Washington State pursuant to a class action settlement.

All symposium events are free of charge and wheelchair accessible. For details and free registration, visit

  — By Andrew Cohen 3/5/08


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