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The Criminalization of Policy

6:30 pm 8:00 PM
Savior Pastoral Center, Kansas City, KS

The Criminalization of Policy

6:30 pm 8:00 PM
Savior Pastoral Center, Kansas City, KS

The Criminalization of Policy

At the third program in American Public Square’s KC Common Good series, a judge, a prosecutor, a Legal Aid attorney, and a policy developer talked about the criminalization of policy, or the system of laws that disproportionately penalizes certain groups, particularly poor communities of color. Motor vehicle laws, housing codes, civil asset forfeiture, the collection of civil debts, and racial profiling contribute to stark disparities: low-income people are often unable to afford the fees and fines that result from these policies, and they accumulate debt, entering a cycle of poverty and criminalization. How do we break the cycle? Eliminate or lessen criminal penalties? If so, how can we enforce laws, and how will our criminal justice system make up for lost revenue? Our panel of experts discussed the criminalization of policy from various perspectives and explored solutions to these problems.


Jean Peters Baker has cemented a reputation during her tenure as Jackson County’s elected prosecutor as a fearless and compassionate advocate for the victims of crime, especially the young and most vulnerable, and a champion of working with police and community leaders to confront the complex problem of violence. Baker was appointed prosecutor in May 2011 and elected to the position in November 2012. She is only the second woman elected to lead the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office; the first, now-U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, hired Baker as a young assistant prosecutor. Baker has since served in nearly every unit of the office, Baker is widely credited with being unafraid of tackling difficult cases. In 2011, soon after being appointed to lead the office, Baker prosecuted the bishop of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph for failing to report potential abuse of children by a priest. The case attracted national attention after a Jackson County grand jury’s indictment made the bishop the highest ranking cleric in the United States to face a criminal charge related to church’s child sex abuse scandal. In another case that attracted national attention, Baker was named special prosecutor in October 2013 to investigate the filing of charges in a high-profile sexual assault involving high school football players in northwest Missouri.. Over her career in the prosecutor’s office, Baker has served in Sex Crimes and Child Abuse, Community Justice, Domestic Violence, Drug Enforcement, Family Support, Major Crimes and as Chief Warrant Officer. Baker won the respect and admiration of neighborhood leaders, small business owners and law enforcement when she served as the coordinator of the Drug Abatement Response Team (DART). Baker spearheaded a multi-agency effort to close drug houses and businesses that erode our neighborhoods as well as motels that were known to be hotbeds of illegal drug activity. For her efforts in fighting the drug trade in Kansas City, Jean was honored with the Excellence Award for Advancing COMBAT Objectives given by the County Prosecutor, police agencies and community advocates. During her time in the prosecutor’s office, Jean also received honors as Rookie Attorney of the year and Victim Advocate of the Year. Baker’s focus as prosecutor has been to make Jackson County a safer and better place to live, work and raise a family. Baker has set as an office goal to more closely connect the prosecutor’s office to the community and more smartly address and reduce crime, especially violent crime. One of Baker’s first steps was to form neighborhood prosecution teams that focused on Kansas City and eastern Jackson County neighborhoods beset by crime. In 2012, Baker initiated a new violence reduction effort that now is known as the Kansas City No Violence Alliance. The effort is led by a governing board that includes Baker, Mayor Sly James, Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forte’ and U.S. Attorney Tammy Dickinson. Using an evidence-based or proven approach known as focused deterrence, KC NoVA in 2014 was able to help the community reduce homicides in Kansas City to the lowest level in four decades. Jean briefly left the prosecutor’s office in 2010, when she was elected as a Missouri State Representative and served as the leader of the Freshman Democrats during her tenure in the General Assembly. She spearheaded the Kansas City Caucus and served as a co-chair of this group to promote economic development issues for the Kansas City area. Her service in the Missouri General Assembly provided her with a perspective of advocating for additional resources for the office and carrying out legislative priorities. In 2011, Jean stepped down as state representative, when Jackson County Executive Michael Sanders appointed her to succeed Jim Kanatzar as the county’s top law enforcement official — Jackson County Prosecutor. Baker grew up in an Osage County, MO, farming community, received a bachelor’s degree from Columbia College in Columbia, MO, a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a law degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.

Lavanya Madhusudan, MSW, MPH has worked for over a decade at the intersection of grassroots community organizing, advocacy and research, conducting thorough analyses of many of the most urgent social and health challenges facing society today. She has worked extensively with marginalized populations in the United States and India to improve the effectiveness, ethics, impact and sustainability of health and social programs and policies by centering the communities most affected. Her areas of expertise are wide ranging, and bridge grassroots community work with research to ensure that solutions are both community-driven and fact-based. She has studied child malnutrition in urban slums in India, conducted clinical research on life-threatening illnesses affecting vulnerable children, evaluated a world-renowned rural community health worker program, organized residents in inner City Baltimore to address neighborhood blight and advocate for resources, identified the ways in which State policies function to criminalize low-income residents and people of color in Maryland, advocated for more equitable policies to support low-income workers in Maryland to advance to living-wage careers, and analyzed federal and state workforce development programs and policies. She is currently working to advance racial, economic and environmental justice for people of color in Seattle. Lavanya earned a Bachelor of Arts in Health and Societies from the University of Pennsylvania, Master of Public Health with a focus on Community-Based Public Health from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Master of Social Work with a specialization in Community Action and Social Policy from the University of Maryland.

Jalilah Otto was appointed as Circuit Judge in October 2017 by Governor Eric Greitens. Judge Otto had served as an Associate Circuit Judge in Jackson County from 2014-2017. Prior to her appointment to the Court, Judge Otto served as a Chief Trial Assistant for the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office, as well as a Special Assistant United States Attorney with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Judge Otto began her legal career in 2002 as a judicial law clerk to the Honorable Lisa White Hardwick of the Missouri Court of Appeals. In 2005, she became an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney with the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office and was the recipient of the Louis Lombardo Award for Prosecutor of the Year in 2009. She joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2010 where she prosecuted large-scale narcotic and gang cases. In 2013, she rejoined the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office as a Chief Trial Assistant while maintaining her role at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. At the time of her appointment, Judge Otto was very active in the legal community having served on the Kansas City Commission on Violent Crimes, the Kansas City Municipal Ethics Commission, the Kansas City Youth Court, and the Missouri Bar’s Committee on Minority Issues. In addition, she provided leadership as the President of the Jackson County Bar Association, Chair of the Criminal Law Committee of the Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association, and Vice-Chair of the Public Service Committee of the Association of Women Lawyers. Judge Otto is a native of Kansas City and received her law degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law. She also received her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Communication and Political Science from Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. Judge Otto has also served as an adjunct professor at Metropolitan Community College – Penn Valley, and National American University.

Wayne Smith manages a team of attorneys representing very low income criminal defendants in the municipal court of Kansas City, Missouri. This team handles approximately 10,000 cases a year, providing representation when the city is seeking jail time and everyone in custody, as well as defendants who are eligible to participate in the Mental Health, Veterans and Drug Court programs. Wayne received his JD from the University of Kansas Law School.


Debbie Bayless has been a mediator with CCR since 2004 and Mediation Coordinator since August 2009. Debbie holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology and Human Services, with a minor in German Language and Psychology. Currently she works primarily with neighborhoods and various court diversion programs. She is thoroughly enjoying working on her Master’s Degree in Restorative Justice at Eastern Mennonite University.






Thanks to support from the William T. Kemper Foundation, we prepared facts and statistics about the topic. The FACT SHEET is compiled by professional research librarians. The librarians also collect suggested readings on the subject. We encourage you to read the articles before attending “The Criminalization of Policy.”

  • “On any given day, 2.3 million people are incarcerated across the United States. Of that staggering number, 27% are sitting in local jails. The majority are in the pretrial stage, and many of them are simply too poor to post bail. The pretrial-defendant population has driven a 99% growth in jail populations over the past 15 years. Throughout the course of an average year, 11 million people churn through our jail system.” Source.
  • “Non-criminal asset forfeiture lets government agents seize Americans’ assets (cash, but also cars and even houses) on the mere suspicion that they were involved in a crime. Asset forfeiture…enables police to take the property of Americans who remain innocent in the eyes of the law. … Civil and administrative asset forfeiture also seizes cars, which can rob the poor of their ability to work. … Texas and Virginia seized 17,000 cars from 2000 to 2017. The average value of the car was $6,000, again suggesting that this tactic targets the poor.” Source.
  • Reforming civil forfeiture is an issue that crosses party lines. Fifteen states now require a criminal conviction for most or all forfeiture cases. Source.
  • “The United States is home to less than 5% of the world’s population, but nearly 25% of its prisoners. This is due in part to the overly harsh consequences of drug convictions. Over 1.6 million people are arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated, placed under criminal justice supervision and/or deported each year on a drug law violation.” Source.
  • “In many cities, homeless persons are effectively criminalized for the situation in which they find themselves. Sleeping rough, sitting in public places, panhandling, public urination (in cities that provide almost zero public toilets) and myriad other offences have been devised to attack the ‘blight’ of homelessness. …regulations lead to infraction notices, which rapidly turn into misdemeanors, leading to the issuance of warrants, incarceration, the incurring of unpayable fines. … In Skid Row, LA., 6,696 arrests of homeless persons were reported to have been made between 2011 and 2016.” Source.
  • “The inability of low-income drivers to pay fines and fees for minor traffic violation can result in severe consequences. The poor more often buy used vehicles in disrepair. Their neighborhoods are more frequently patrolled making the poor more prone to be stopped for minor traffic violations. If the poor do not pay the fines and fees on time or cannot afford to get required repairs performed, the fines and penalties quickly escalate, up to and including driver’s license suspension and incarceration.” Source.
  • “Studies on noncustodial parents in Maryland, who are mostly African-American men, have found that noncustodial parents have limited ability to pay child support, as they are poor and face significant employment barriers such as low education, a history of incarceration and economic hardship. … Qualitative studies have shown that young fathers want to be involved in supporting their children, but economic and personal factors often get in the way.” Source.


Wagner, Peter and Wendy Sawyer. (March 14, 2018). Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018. The Prison Policy Initiative. Source. State and local laws largely contribute to mass incarcerations. “…local jails often receive short shrift in larger discussions about criminal justice, but they play a critical role as “incarceration’s front door” and have a far greater impact than the daily number suggests.” “The graphic does not capture the enormous churn in and out of our correctional facilities … Every year, 626,000 people walk out of prison gates, but people go to jail 10.6 million times each year. Jail churn is particularly high because most people in jails have not been convicted. Some have just been arrested and will make bail in the next few hours or days, and others are too poor to make bail and must remain behind bars until their trial. Only a small number (150,000 on any given day) have been convicted, generally serving misdemeanors sentences under a year.”