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The Dickensian Return of Debtors’ Prisons

Editor’s note: This is the third in a collaborative series with the R Street Institute exploring conservative approaches to criminal justice reform.

Imagine you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck. On your way home from work one evening you’re pulled over for having [1] a loud muffler or tossing [2] a cigarette butt out of your window, or maybe you’re cited [3] by your local municipality for letting your grass grow a tad too long. Suddenly, you owe hundreds of dollars in fines and fees. But you can’t afford to pay without falling behind on rent, car payments, or other essentials.

Those hypotheticals may sound far-fetched, but for far too many poor Americans, they’re a reality. Unpaid fees can turn lives upside down; they can trap people in a perpetual cycle of poverty and incarceration.

Many civil liberties and civil rights organizations rightly point out that the practice of jailing people for unpaid fines and fees is turning our criminal justice system into a de facto debtors’ prison.

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The Marshall Project’s Eli Hager says debtors’ prisons are “any prison, jail, or other detention facility in which people are incarcerated for their inability, refusal, or failure to pay debt.” They’ve been outlawed [4] by Congress since 1833 (Dickensian times [5]), at least in theory. In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled [6] in Bearden v. Georgia that judges must first consider whether a suspect is “willfully” refusing to pay a fee before locking him or her up for failure to pay.

Still, modern judges routinely sentence poor Americans to jail for not paying fines or fees. Take the story of 62-year-old Edward Brown. In February 2015 [3], the bedridden Brown was cited by the city of Jennings, Missouri, for letting his grass grow too high. After Brown’s small house was condemned, he continued to live there and was subsequently charged with trespassing on what was, just the other day, his own property.

Brown, who was living off of a $488 Social Security check and food stamps, was ultimately saddled with $464 in fees from the city. Certainly, one would have a hard time arguing that his inability to pay the fees was “willful.” However, that didn’t stop judges from sentencing him to jail on multiple occasions.

A few months later, 635 miles to the east in the Pittsburgh suburb of Apollo, Pennsylvania, a similar fate awaited Judith Snock. The then-59-year-old was pulled over [7] for speeding, and issued a $138.50 ticket.

District Judge Carolyn Bengel demanded that Snock pay her fine within an hour of being brought to court, or she would be locked in jail overnight. Snock, who had just broken her arm in a car accident, had been laid off from her job at a cement plant, and thus could not pay. She spent the night in jail.

Snock’s and Brown’s cases aren’t outliers. As a matter of fact, in 2016, some 2,500 people were jailed for failing to pay fines or fees in Pennsylvania, according [7] to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

And the fines related to arrests are just the tip of the iceberg for poor Americans. Their costs can skyrocket once they enter the courtroom, with pre-conviction fees, sentencing fees, incarceration fees, parole fees, and a whole host of other charges awaiting them.

Pre-conviction fees [8] include paying for a jury, a public defender, or “room and board” for pre-trial incarceration. Once the trial begins, suspects can be on the hook for administrative fees, restitution, and paying back their attorneys. Drug test costs and renting out an ankle bracelet or breathalyzer can burden the suspect once they’re released from jail. Not to mention, interest and late fees apply to many of these payments.   

Even aspects of our criminal justice system that are typically thought of as free for the indigent aren’t really free at all. For example, in 2014, NPR found [8] that suspects in 43 states and the District of Columbia were required to pay public defender fees. The initial application fee can run anywhere from $10 to $400; additional reimbursements after the case is settled can cost thousands of dollars.

If let out of prison, the suspect has more than just the public defender to compensate. For example, if the alleged criminal is required to take drug tests, they must pay [8] for that. If they are put under house arrest, they must pay rental fees for an ankle bracelet. These fees vary from state to state, but typically add up to hundreds and even thousands of dollars.  

The question still remains: how have judges legally been able to sentence poor citizens for failure to post collateral? The answer lies in the vague nature of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1983 Bearden case.

In the majority opinion, the Court ruled [9], “The State may not use as the sole justification for imprisonment the poverty or inability of the probationer to pay the fine and to make restitution if he has demonstrated sufficient bona fide efforts to do so.”

The problem here arises from the fact that the court never explained what constitutes “sufficient bona fide efforts.” With such a vague ruling, judges have been left with the discretion to determine whether suspects make legitimate efforts to pay the fees or not. Such a standard is arbitrary and ripe for abuse by judges who want to seem “tough on crime.”    

NPR’s investigation also found “wide discrepancies” in how judges make determinations as to whether suspects have tried to pay or not.

It is clear that in the cases of Brown and Snock, both suspects did everything in their power to pay the fees they owed. Both were injured and unemployed due to said injuries, making it hard to pony up out of their own pockets.

Snock, for example, was only granted an hour to come up with the money she owed, and was obviously unable to do so. Luckily, her retired mother was eventually able to collect enough money to pay the fee and get her daughter out of prison.

Brown, on the other hand, has been unable to pay his fees. That’s sent him in and out of jail in the Jennings area for a few years, and the local government continues to demand hundreds of dollars from him.

Furthermore, in 43 states [10], unpaid fines and fees can lead to a suspect losing his or her driver’s license. License suspensions are particularly pervasive in poor communities and communities of color. A study [11] conducted by ProPublica Illinois found that 54 percent of license suspensions in that state occurred in “low income zip codes,” and 44 percent occurred in majority-black zip codes, even though only 11 percent of Illinois’ total population is black.   

When a poor person’s license is suspended, it becomes nearly impossible to pay back the fees and fines that are owed in the first place, especially in rural parts of the country with less access to public transit. An American with a suspended license is likely to either lose his or her ability to get to work and thus make money to pay off the debt, or risk additional fines for driving with a suspended license. A 2007 study [12] conducted in New Jersey found that 42 percent of people who had their licenses suspended in the Garden State lost their jobs as a result.

In an April 2018 paper on the impact of driver’s license suspensions, the Reason Foundation’s James Craven found [13] that in an average case in Michigan the fees to get one’s license back could cost $2,118. Such a sum is nearly impossible to pay without steady work. And Michigan is not unique here—across the nation [14], states charge hundreds and even thousands of dollars for driving without a license.  

So what is the path forward?

Leaving so much discretion to local judges has been mostly bad news for poor Americans. However, this isn’t what’s inherently troubling.

According to the American Bar Association [15], 38 states hold elections for their high courts, and 39 states hold elections for their trial courts. That means citizens in these states have the ability to vote out judges who over-sentence unpaid fee cases and replace them with more lenient, reform-minded justices.

Similar approaches have been taken with the election of district attorneys who vow to pass criminal justice reforms. Take Philadelphia’s new DA, Larry Krasner, for example.

On the campaign trail, Krasner vowed [16] to support criminal justice reform, oppose [17] the death penalty, and hold law enforcement accountable. So far, he’s delivered on those promises. For example, he refused [18] to pursue the death penalty for an alleged police killer, and he allowed rapper Meek Mill to be released [19] in a high-profile, non-violent parole case.

Judges may not have the same level of discretion as district attorneys, but when it comes to sentencing for unpaid fees, a reform-minded judge can make all the difference in the world.  

Other efforts to prevent another Edward Brown or Judith Snock from being locked up over fees they cannot afford are underway. Lawsuits, brought by civil liberties organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), have helped make headway in some regards.

In 2016, the city of Jennings agreed [20] to pay $4.6 million to approximately 2,000 “mainly poor and black” suspects who had been jailed for unpaid fees and fines.

In Snock’s home state of Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court’s Criminal Procedure Rules Committee has proposed [21] amending the law. The amendments would require that when deciding whether a suspect can afford to pay the fees or not, the judge must take into account the suspect’s salary, other forms of income, the value of any properties he or she owns, debts owed by the suspect, dependents the suspect supports, and other income earners in the household.

The ACLU is currently fighting battles against debtors’ prisons in 15 different states that it has identified as violating the rights of indigent Americans.    

Yet even with reforms being pushed, there’s no two ways about it: unpaid fines have contributed to the formation of a two-tiered society. Punishment for failure to pay fees for minor infractions should not be something that turns a person’s life upside down.

Dan King is a Young Voices Advocate, journalist, and digital communications professional based in Arlington, Virginia. His work has appeared at National Review, Reason, The Week, and the Weekly Standard.   

30 Comments (Open | Close)

30 Comments To "The Dickensian Return of Debtors’ Prisons"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 19, 2018 @ 3:20 am

“On the campaign trail, Krasner vowed to support criminal justice reform, oppose the death penalty, and hold law enforcement accountable.”

But this is not a mere law enforcement gambit. This is a gambit by cities, parishes, counties, regional and state bureaucracies creating money generating mechanisms. And they don’t target communities that can actually afford to fight their money making schemes, they target low income communities because they have no real voice to mount challenge.

While, it might great fan fare to harangue law enforcement , ultimately it’s the administrations that encourage and profit.

#2 Comment By mrscracker On July 19, 2018 @ 11:12 am

“A few months later, 635 miles to the east in the Pittsburgh suburb of Apollo, Pennsylvania, a similar fate awaited Judith Snock. The then-59-year-old was pulled over for speeding, and issued a $138.50 ticket.

District Judge Carolyn Bengel demanded that Snock pay her fine within an hour of being brought to court, or she would be locked in jail overnight. Snock, who had just broken her arm in a car accident, had been laid off from her job at a cement plant, and thus could not pay. She spent the night in jail.”
******************
That’s a shame to spend a night in jail for such a small fine but I wonder when reading this lady’s history if there might not have been other things going on?
And that was actually a very modest fine for speeding compared to some I’ve heard about.

#3 Comment By Chris Mallory On July 19, 2018 @ 12:32 pm

mrscracker, the lady in Apollo got off lucky. A local judge in my area gives $10 credit per day in jail to pay off a fine. If Miss Snock had been in front of him, she would have had 14 days in jail. Then she would have been given a bill for room and board from the jail when she was released.

#4 Comment By JonF On July 19, 2018 @ 1:46 pm

Re: And that was actually a very modest fine for speeding compared to some I’ve heard about.

I wonder if the town is a speed trap? There was one of those some miles up the highway from where I lived in Ohio. I got a ticket there once, for an illegal turn, not speeding. The fine was a mere $60, but since the “No Turn” sign had been knocked flat by someone hitting it I thought I had a good chance of fighting the ticket. No luck though: I was informed I should just *know* I could not turn there, and then was assessed $100 in court costs for trying to fight the ticket– and was told to pay before I left the building (luckily they took credit cards). The point being the town kept the fines low so no one would fight tickets and then charged high fees to anyone who did. I can see something like that going on here, with the threat of jail being used as a scare tactic to force people to cough up the money.

#5 Comment By plainspoken On July 19, 2018 @ 2:19 pm

Possible double post.

Does anyone know of a charitable group or site that helps people pay off these debts?

#6 Comment By fabian On July 19, 2018 @ 2:24 pm

That’s the real resistance we need.

#7 Comment By fabian On July 19, 2018 @ 2:25 pm

mrscracker; the fine was modest maybe because the speeding was modest…

#8 Comment By mrscracker On July 19, 2018 @ 3:07 pm

fabian says:

mrscracker; the fine was modest maybe because the speeding was modest…”
*******************
Thank you, that could certainly be the case.

#9 Comment By mrscracker On July 19, 2018 @ 3:26 pm

JonF says:

“I wonder if the town is a speed trap? ”
******************

It’s a possibility. We recently had a TV news story suggesting some of our local towns raise revenue that way.

The first mile or so of I-10 after getting off the Atchafalaya Swamp bridge was known as a speed trap. But I think drivers were to be blamed some, too because they’d really put the pedal to the metal after slogging 18 miles @ 55-60 MPH or slower on the bridge. That’s assuming there were no wrecks, in which case you might sit on the bridge for hours. My son said he takes a lawn chair & a fishing pole when he drives over the swamp so he can do a little fishing if the traffic halts.
🙂
But yes, there’s often other things going on behind the scene when you read stories in the news.

#10 Comment By mrscracker On July 19, 2018 @ 3:37 pm

One benefit of living in a state like ours known for political corruption is that the corruption can sometimes work in your favor. Politicians might be a little crooked but they can also be less rigid enforcing the law & will make exceptions. Such as “fixing” tickets for family & others.

It may be partly that the culture isn’t primarily WASP or puritanical. Things tend to “rouler” a little easier here.

#11 Comment By mattbernius On July 19, 2018 @ 6:45 pm

plainspoken asked:

> Does anyone know of a charitable group or site that helps people pay off these debts?

Off the top of my head, no — however I expect they do exist.

However that is a problem in and of itself, as the very existence of such groups creates a perverse incentive for local governments to perpetuate these behaviors. Bail relief groups are in a similar double bind.

The reality is that these fee and fines are — in most cases — implemented to offset taxes (either cuts or not raising them to match budgets).

#12 Comment By kalendjay On July 19, 2018 @ 7:52 pm

Good luck electing out judges who knuckle down on the poor. It is the job of judges and cops to tax us and prove their smarts with legal tactics, such as handcuffing you if you make a misdemeanor complaint within a police station, and you may have a suspended license, a child support warrant, etc.

(did I tell you that in NJ, deadbeat dads can’t get a fishing permit? Might focus them on finding work, but more likely it is to pay for the fancy computerized permit signup system, which is designed to track your whereabouts, and oh, any discrepencies in your driver’s license that might get you locked up.)

Being honest and explaining your situation to a prosecutor will only get you in more trouble. Remember this motto:

A judge is a prosecutor in robes.
A district attorney is a cop in a suit.
A cop is a criminal in uniform.

#13 Comment By tz On July 19, 2018 @ 8:44 pm

And if someone loses his job and gets behind on Child Support, they are also jailed. And so the arearage builds.

But “deadbeat dad debtors” aren’t a nice example even if they can’t pay.

Or they can just commit suicide, especially if they are veterans. See secondclasscitizen.org and watch the video.

#14 Comment By debts paid On July 20, 2018 @ 10:35 am

I work in a field that deals directly with this situation. And I’ll be honest, I don’t have very much sympathy for people who get caught in the cycle of fines and the inability to pay them. I’m tired of people making excuses for anti-social behavior that affects the quality of life for everyone around them. You can cherry pick some example here and there and call it an outrageous system but the reality is that most of these people have committed anti-social behavior or completely avoidable traffic offenses for which they have been fined.

My major city is filled with people with suspended licenses because of tickets or unpaid fines. In most casts, the fines and tickets are entirely avoidable. Don’t drive like an idiot or act in an anti-social manner that affects others. I see this on a daily basis. The system doesn’t target poor people – it make no sense to try and get money from someone who doesn’t have any money – it is – and let’s be honest here – its that a disproportionate number of poor people behave in the anti-social manner precisely because they have nothing to lose. They have no intentions of paying the fines in the first place, that’s why they act like anti-social jerks and accrue fines at a rate unheard of in any other population group. Towns like Ferguson, MO had little tax base from it’s poor resident and instead saw an opportunity to generate much needed revenue from fining them for their pervasive anti-social behavior. And it was wildly successful because the residents refused to modify their behavior to conform with the law.

Anyone who disagrees with me is not being honest with themselves. Middle class and wealthy people engage in this anti-social behavior too – but at a far less rate – because it’s not part of their culture. My neighbors don’t liter, they mow their law, they are respectful, the don’t speed through neighborhood streets where children play, and they park their cars in legal parking spots.

That being said, I come to the same conclusion as the author, but for a different reason. I think she should stop jailing debtors for unpaid fines. It is extremely expensive to jail a poor person for relatively minor fine. Disproportionately expensive. It makes no financial sense to run a justice system that spend more trying to collect petty fines from indigent people that they will recover from said person. There has to be some kind of punishment or penalty for anti-social behavior but I’m just not sure what it is yet.

#15 Comment By Marilee On July 20, 2018 @ 11:44 am

Thank you for calling attention to this. I live in Oklahoma where it is rampant.

#16 Comment By GregR On July 20, 2018 @ 11:53 am

Debt Paid,

Let me guess you are white, middle class, and drive a late model car? When was the last time you got pulled over for ‘crossing the white line too many times,’ or my recent favorite ‘Dash lights that were too bright and were distracting.’

Nonsense traffic stops of poor people are routine because cops are looking for minor drug violations to turn into arrests. Even if they don’t get you for drugs there is still the fact that you just got a nonsense ticket, but it will still cost you 2-300 to pay it off. And if you can’t, well there goes your drivers license, and your only way to get to work. Good luck ever getting out of the mountain of debt that just gets piled deeper and higher every time you try to fight your way out of it.

Heck I had a client who had a drivers license suspended because a court reporter entered the ticket information into the system wrong. That was a fun day for him… He wound up spending a night in jail, getting drug into court, and assessed a $500 fine for failure to pay a ticket, for a ticket he already paid. By the time I got involved I was able to get him out of the fine, but he had wracked up about $1,200 in court costs and fees he had to pay, even though the reason he was arrested in the first place was because of a clerical error.

#17 Comment By Logan On July 20, 2018 @ 12:00 pm

If you can’t afford to pay a speeding ticket, then don’t speed. It’s difficult being poor (been there.) Arguing that poor people should be exempt from petty offenses is another step in removing the veneer of civilization. And the same ilk as this author probably wonders as well why the rise of economic segregation, gated communities, and inequality . . .

#18 Comment By Tomonthebeach On July 20, 2018 @ 1:03 pm

Poor people are often poor because of how they behave. Yet, most of these posts express righteous outrage at how poor people are being crushed by our CJ system – and they are! Jailing poor people for minor infractions can force them deeper into poverty. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that a personal history of serial minor misbehavior is how many of them wound up in dire straights.

#19 Comment By bobo On July 20, 2018 @ 1:49 pm

Good grief, are you really so insulated from society at large to hold these opinions?

I was raised on the “Conservative perspective”, and I bought it until I was poor (while white and educated). I experienced for a short period of time, less than 10% of what someone raised in generational poverty experiences for their entire lives. It is inescapable under current conditions where people profit from the misfortune of others.

That profit can come from judges receiving kick backs for putting people into private prisons. It can come from police making arrest quotas from lazy traffic stop activities. If you dig even a little deeper, you will find troves of rocks to be overturned where borderline evil people look to disadvantage the already disadvantaged. This is becoming a cold and sinister country because of ignorance like this.

Does poverty encourage anti-social behavior? You better believe it! When a child is raised by poor parents in schools without heat or qualified teachers, do they act out in anti-social ways? No question! Should we be dealing with this using the criminal justice system? Of course not!

So what is the Conservative answer? Vote tough judges out of office? When will academics from either side of political spectrum join the real world? I hope it is soon, because they should have a lot to contribute.

#20 Comment By mattbernius On July 20, 2018 @ 8:37 pm

Logan wrote:

> If you can’t afford to pay a speeding ticket, then don’t speed.

If you cannot afford to pay the fine for a cracked driveway, then you should fix it.

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

[22]

#21 Comment By debts paid On July 20, 2018 @ 9:25 pm

GregR – It doesn’t make any difference what race or creed I am. I follow the law and my neighbors of all colors, creeds, races and income levels do too, and none of them complain about getting pulled over for headlights out and the cops finding drugs in the car. Because they have two working headlights and they don’t have drugs in the car in the first place.

I started out life quite poor and didn’t make it to the ‘middle class’ until the third decade of my life. So I’m quite familiar with living paycheck to paycheck, driving a junker car, etc.

Yes, there are nonsense tickets. I don’t disagree with you. But there is a lot more than nonsense tickets going on in the economically depressed areas . Most people in America don’t travel into the poorest zip codes, especially the urban ones, because they are full of people who voluntarily choose to live like citizens of a third world country. Gangs roam with reckless abandon killing people and shooting up innocents on school yards and playgrounds. Open air drug markets are rampant. Prostitutes and their john scurry around like rats in the night. Some quotes I’ve seen say that in the worst zip codes in Chicago up to 75% of people have suspended licenses and upwards of 75% of people are driving uninsured. It’s quite literally the wild west. It’s no surprise the people who live in these areas voluntarily choose not to pay their fines – and they sure do accrue them!

They can come move out by me – the land of the low rent suburban apartment complexes, where the only thing the cops care about are DUIs and burglaries. They could care less about a weed pipe in the car. There are zero murders, low crime and poor and working class people as far as you can see, most of whom chose to comply with the law and don’t engage in anti-social behavior.

The SJW’s have a warped sense of reality that they try to conform to their preconceived notions of justice. A handful of cases of true injustice become the basis for the belief that antisocial behavior is acceptable, and enforcing laws against it is unjust. Most public defenders start out as SJW’s who quickly realize in the real world, there are violent criminals and bad people, and at some point, white privilege and microaggressions are a justification for armed robbery or trafficking in hard drugs.

To this end, either rules apply to every – equality under the law – or they don’t apply to anyone. To say that poor people shouldn’t be fined for speeding, or parking illegally, or not keeping their vehicle in the bare minimum of road worthy condition, simply because they cannot pay for it is an injustice in and of itself. The romans said in their twelve tables that judgment debtors who didn’t pay their debts within 30 days could be sold into slavery to pay back the judgment creditor. These concepts of owing money go back a long long time and to suddenly say “poor people shouldn’t be responsible for their fines” is ludacris.

#22 Comment By Mia On July 20, 2018 @ 9:31 pm

[23]

If you aren’t familiar with it, the Kids for Cash scandal in PA is worth taking a look at. I hear the judge is trying to get out now, but I have no sympathy. More of these judges need scrutinized and jailed. The reckoning has only just begun.

#23 Comment By debts paid On July 20, 2018 @ 9:32 pm

“And the same ilk as this author probably wonders as well why the rise of economic segregation, gated communities, and inequality . . .”

I live 5 minutes south of an entire village of low rent suburban apartment complexes full of working class people of all races, colors and creeds. Very low crime, no murders in recent memory, some DUI’s here or there, few of the BS tickets that seem pervasive in the poorest of economic zip codes. The reason? The citizens choose to comply with the law and don’t engage in anti-social behavior. These SJW’s who make exceptions for some people but not for others who actually comply with the law is discriminatory in and of itself, like saying, “oh you poor people, you’re not civilized, you don’t have to have two working headlights, or pay $70 to register your vehicle on a yearly basis, or purchase the bare minimum of car insurance.” I have people in my family who live this like. I tell them to cancel HBO for a few months so they can pay the parking tickets for being stupid and parking in front of the hydrant and so on.

#24 Comment By Mia On July 20, 2018 @ 9:41 pm

“While, it might great fan fare to harangue law enforcement , ultimately it’s the administrations that encourage and profit.”

I wouldn’t be so quick to let them off the hook, though. Years ago I knew a woman whose daughter was trying to become a police officer without going through all of the crony hoops that went with the job, like recommendations from judges to be considered to become a police. She tried relying only on police academy scores, but found she was passed over for low-scoring men who had letters of recommendation from the judges. So they have the system totally locked up to protect their interests.

But what needs to be discussed and examined is what sort of career paths the judges and DAs who use their discretion to destroy people to look good on election day are angling for. Attorney General and Supreme Court careers are built on going after helpless people and making them out to be criminals who deserve these terrifying punishments. In Kids for Cash which I posted above, it was a money-making scheme. So there are goals here that these sorts of situations serve. We all too often don’t even bother to notice this is what happens, however.

#25 Comment By Manqueman On July 22, 2018 @ 9:36 am

Can’t blame states alone for this; private interests are more than involved with this crap. They benefit from it. At the very least, if they don’t encourage this obscenity, they’re complete, enablers.

#26 Comment By Werd On July 23, 2018 @ 12:54 am

Can we just be honest? The real problem is America, period. An empire has to fund itself somehow. Conservatives have been telling everyone for decades, before I was even born, that big government bureaucracy would inevitably lead to everything we see now. For every one progressive social program, there’s a dozen unintended consequences. A real conservative criminal justice reform would entail the end of the war on drugs, instead of jail or prison a drug addict would be placed in a state run Detox unit (like the Portuguese system). Until police departments cease to be revenue collection agencies, and District Attorneys are judged by something other than conviction rates, any new measures to protect people from the state will just be like putting a baindaid on a bullet wound.

#27 Comment By Wizard On July 23, 2018 @ 9:01 am

Entirely valid points, GregR. People such as debts paid and Logan have no understanding of how the world works for way too many people. Of course the system disproportionately targets poor people, for the simple reason that they’re rarely in any position to fight back. Tick off too many middle and upper class people, and you just might find yourself out of a job. Exploiting the poor is much less likely to come at such a cost. Just talk about “anti-social behavior” and how you’re tough on crime. (And not raising taxes!)

I’m at a point in my life where I rarely have to deal with this kind of hassle, but I’ve experienced a little in the past and seen it happen to plenty of others. “If you can’t afford the fine, don’t break the law!” Sure, that sounds good, but the truth is that many of these laws are petty and pointless. Plus, even if you are innocent, the system is heavily tilted towards cops and prosecutors. The law is whatever cops say it is, and they rarely suffer any consequences even when they’re blatantly in the wrong.

Oh, and suspending drivers licenses (and, increasingly, various professional licenses) over unpaid fines is usually just stupid. Even loan sharks are smart enough not to break your legs if you need your legs to earn money.

#28 Comment By Logan On July 23, 2018 @ 6:54 pm

Wizard says: “Of course the system disproportionately targets poor people, for the simple reason that they’re rarely in any position to fight back.”

If I am ticketed for an expired registration or inspection sticker, or no liability insurance, how does my status as a middle class person allow me to fight back? I would just pay it and learn from it. My daughter was almost killed by a drunk driver. The drunk driver’s attorney successfully argued she could not make restitution for my daughter’s totaled car if she was in jail (this was her 2d DUI causing bodily harm.) After 2 years in which she failed to pay even a dollar in restitution, the judge determined it was too much of a financial hardship, and she would be absolved by spending four weekends in jail. (This was in a blue state.) Who ended up being exploited? So Wizard, although I’m pretty much a liberal, I still believe in personal responsibility and accountability. I now live in a red state. Last year the guy that rear ended me didn’t have insurance. I had to pay my $500 deductible to get my car fixed, but he had has license suspended. It cost me $500 for his negligence and his not abiding by the legal requirement to have insurance. Fair or right? Most traffic laws I’m aware of exist for a legitimate reason.

#29 Comment By john waters On July 24, 2018 @ 6:44 pm

In the 50’s an uncle died from pneumonia after being transported from jail to jail in an open transport after being unable to make bail for shoplifting a can of dogfood. He left me his watch (his most valuable possession) and a vision of our criminal justice system unfitting a child of seven.

#30 Comment By W On July 25, 2018 @ 9:51 pm

Two problems can be seen from the article: excessive regulations (lawn grass??) and jailing offenders for otherwise minor misdemeanors. Problem #1 should be nixed at the ballot box, while Problem #2 should give offenders the choice of settling court fines through deductions from Social Security or paychecks.