What makes the impact of poverty on our justice system so painful is that, once someone has broken the law, they suddenly are faced with a stark reality – nobody wants to hire someone with a criminal record. Even a minor drug offense in your teens, amidst an otherwise completely sterling background, results in a significant loss of employability. This means that millions of people (poor or not) who get tangled up in the justice system, and cannot manage to completely clear their records, are abruptly faced with significant cuts to their possible lifetime earnings.
In short, anybody who gets arrested is at real risk of being trapped in permanent poverty. Arrest and incarceration also substantially harm the chances of family members, particularly children, who are in some ways the biggest victims of our grotesquely swollen prison population. Besides adding to the population of structurally poor, this greatly reinforces the behaviors that keep many of the poor from escaping from poverty – they don’t have a job and need money, so they steal or deal drugs, but after being arrested they can’t find a job, and so when they need money they go back to stealing and dealing, even though they may know that it’s a bad idea. This vicious circle is a bane on poor communities, and on the US as a whole.