At its most extreme, the criminalization of poverty costs lives. That is exactly what happened to Kimberly Rogers.
Kimberly Rogers was charged and pled guilty to welfare fraud in April 2001. She had collected social assistance and failed to report that she was collecting student loans simultaneously. Social assistance recipients cannot also collect student loans without a reduction in their social assistance payments. Justice Greg Rogers sentenced Kimberly Rogers to 18 months probation and imposed a six-month conditional sentence. For the six-month period, Kimberly Rogers was required to stay in her apartment. She was only permitted to leave once a week for three hours. In addition to these penalties, she was ordered to pay $13,372.67 restitution.
The punishment did not stop with Justice Rogers’ judicial sentence. Ontario’s social assistance regulations (under the Ontario Works Act) required Kimberly Rogers’ social assistance to be cut off for three months. She was cut off even though she was pregnant at the time.
In May, Kimberly Rogers began a constitutional challenge to the regulations. Her application for interim relief, heard by Madam Justice Epstein, was granted and Kimberly Rogers’ social assistance payments were reinstated. The effect of this decision was limited to Kimberly Rogers, and was focused in particular on the dangers of denying social assistance payments to a pregnant woman.
To give some shape to the amount of the benefits that Kimberly Rogers received, as a single person, she was entitled to $520 per month and a drug card. She had rent payments of $450 per month, and was required to pay $52 per month against her overpayment. Even though Justice Epstein’s judgment was a victory, it left only $18 per month for food, telephone, clothing and other expenses.
Not surprisingly, Kimberly Rogers was taking anti-depressants. She was unable to afford the basic necessities for living. Her apartment was unbearably hot, and the house arrest made it extremely difficult to seek assistance or community support.
Kimberly Rogers died on August 9, 2001 in her apartment in Sudbury. The jury at the inquest into her death will determine the cause of death.
The inquest into the death of Kimberly Rogers was announced on September 24, 2001, and began in Sudbury on October 15, 2002. Its purpose is to examine the circumstances surrounding Kimberly Rogers’ death and perhaps make recommendations aimed at preventing future deaths.
NAWL is co-intervening in the inquest with the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, and the National Anti-Poverty Organization. The aim of our coalition is to identify the effect of the federal government’s approach to criminal and social justice on the abrogation of provincial and municipal responsibilities to poor women. We also seek to demonstrate how the federal government’s approach has resulted in the increased feminization of poverty and the criminalization of women who are indigent, mentally and/or cognitively disabled and otherwise marginalized. The coalition is fortunate to have Chantal Tie and Jennifer Scott acting as counsel.
Extrapolating from the Specifics
Kimberly Rogers’ death is a tragedy, and one that should cause national alarm. But it was not unpredictable. It can be located within the context of increasing criminalization of poverty.
Our abandonment of low-income Canadians began most obviously in 1995, when the federal government repealed the Canada Assistance Plan and its standards for social assistance. The only remaining standard is that a province cannot require a minimum period of residency for social assistance recipients and still receive a federal government transfer payment to support the provincial social assistance regime.
The Ontario provincial government has followed the federal government’s indication that abandoning poor people is acceptable, and even appropriate. Social assistance payments have been dramatically cut, work-for-welfare programs have been implemented, mandatory drug and literacy testing have been proposed, and welfare fraud charges have become more common. The rules that lead to the three-month suspension of Kimberly Rogers’ social assistance payments have subsequently been made even more punitive; for welfare fraud convictions that relate to periods that occurred in whole or in part after April 1, 2000, the claimant is cut off from receiving any benefits for life. A constitutional challenge to the lifetime ban has been initiated (Broomer v. Ontario (Attorney General), interim decision  O.J. No. 2196 (QL)).
Government portrayal of low-income people as cheats is picked up in the media, and the result is increased public acceptance of poor bashing. All of these changes have negative effects on women, and particularly on single mothers. Poverty leaves people in precarious life situations. The government has an obligation to provide support to low-income folks, not to criminalize people who lack economic power.
Kimberly Rogers’ treatment is just one illustration of the human rights violations that the new Ontario social assistance rules require. Her house arrest was a cruel form of punishment – only in the most extreme cases should “prisoners” be placed in solitary confinement, and yet for just under $14,000 we imposed that sentence on Kimberly Rogers. Hopefully the inquest will result in recommendations that will be acted upon in order to ensure that this kind of tragedy does not occur again.
Kim Brooks teaches torts and tax at Queen’s University, Faculty of Law and is a co-coordinator of NAWL’s National Steering Committee.