Joseph J. Nashville, TN

“This is what you have to do to survive”


By: Elois Freeman

Joseph J. is a 42-year-old African American father of one child living in Nashville, Tennessee.  As a middle-aged man, he is looking to start his life anew, recently enrolling as an incoming freshman at American Baptist College. He is studying to become a guidance counselor of youth and young men. “I want to be there to guide others in the right path for life and career like my pastor has done these past ten years of my life.  If I had had that support earlier, my life journey would have been less tragic.”

Joseph decided to strike out and began a new path after years of struggling inside a seemingly endless cycle of modest gains and setbacks. Joseph has a conviction record, which has caused him to faced seemingly insurmountable challenges in the criminal justice system.

Joseph said he has never had a driver’s license, and for a while in his youth, he drove without it. Unable to pay initial traffic fees, other fines were added. When these weren’t paid, interest was added. Over the years, the debt becomes one a low-wage worker cannot squeeze into the budget. In Tennessee, driving without a license is an arrestable offense. For Joseph, there seemed to be no simple way out.

Though he was a high school athlete, did a short stint in the military and had dreams of obtaining “the American Dream,” his dreams were cut short as he has been trying to survive on the income from low-wage jobs. “I had dreams of being a prosperous accountant. I wanted a wife and to be a family man,” says Joseph. Instead, Joseph found himself stuck beneath the weight of fines and the cycle of being incarcerated for a host of minor offenses. After serving his time, Joseph would return to his community only to find jobs that did not pay wages that even the miserliest of people could live off of

Joseph’s story is not unusual. It reflects the common practice of a justice system that criminalizes poverty. “It’s a growing problem nationally, particularly because of the economic crisis,” said Inimai Chettiar, director of the justice program at New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, roughly one-third of states in the U.S. jail people for not paying off their debts, which range from court-related fees to credit card and car loans. Such practices contravene a 1983 United States Supreme Court ruling that they violate the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

Despite the setbacks, Joseph has been resilient, and as a worker, Joseph has been confident in his interviewing skills. However, Joseph has primarily only been able to find work in fast food or manual labor jobs that do not pay a living wage. He would take jobs— usually two or three at a time— with no benefits and no real career path. “This is what you have to do to survive,” Joseph said.

Now as a grown man and father, Joseph wants to do more than just survive, which is all he has been able to do with past meager paychecks. In the past, he could afford to rent a room, but not own a house. He could eat and get to and from his jobs on public transportation, but it was not enough to pay fines, get ahead, or feel like he was being paid fairly for how hard he was working.

“Our leaders are advocates for the rich and not the middle class or the low-wage workers,” he said. “There is no justice— just us. Laws are being passed in an effort to keep Blacks and the poor down. But the real people built this country and no matter what, we should be able to work and make ends meet.”