Thursday, March 17, 2016

Fighting Local Laws And Prosecutors Who Still Want To Draw Blood From Stones

Guess what? If you throw somebody in jail for
not paying a fine, they aren't going to earn the money
to pay the fine while behind bars.
You's think that would be obvious.  
You'd think they wouldn't have to do this, but the U.S. Justice Department had to remind some state and local governments that it's probably unconstitutional to jail people who can't pay their fines.

Debtor prisons were outlawed many, many years ago, and sending people to prison for an inability to pay fines more often than not violates federal law.

I'm not quite sure how jailing somebody would make them pay fines anyway. You can't go out and get a job to pay your fines if you're sitting in jail.

Maybe the jurisdictions that do this kind of thing believe that if you threaten somebody with fines, they'll get off their lazy ass and get a job.

Might work in theory, but if the person in question hasn't any job skills, or nobody will hire him or her because of a criminal record, or they're disabled, or there are simply no jobs to be had locally, I have no idea how these people would make money.

Of course, we have to draw the distinction between people who can't pay and people who won't pay.

I'm sure there are people who just refuse to pay fines, and you can jail that type of person. But shouldn't someone make a determination about whether they can pay?

The Department of Justice letter was prompted in part by Ferguson, Missouri, which, as we all know, isn't exactly a shining example of racial harmony. There's classism at work here, too.

The DOJ said the Ferguson municipal court "does not act as a neutral arbiter of the law." and "primarily uses it judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the city's financial interests"

That ,the DOJ said, violats the Fourteenth Amendment's due process and equal protection requirements.

And, unfortunately, Ferguson was far from the only municipality pulling this stunt.

The DOJ knows this. As noted in the Washington Post, Lisa Foster and Vanita Gupta, both officials with the department wrote in a letter that went out to all 50 state judicial systems:

"Individuals may confront escalating debt; face repeated, unnecessary incarceration for nonpayment despite posing no danger to the community; lose their jobs and become trapped in cycles of poverty that can be nearly impossible to escape. .......

Furthermore, in addition to being  unlawful, to the extent that these practices are geared not toward addressing public safety, but rather toward raising revenue, they can cast doubt on the impartiality of the tribunal and erode trust between local governments and their consitituents."

There are alternatives to incarcerating people who can't pay their fines, but those aren't revenue generators. You can extend the time period during which they can pay the debt, make the take traffic or public safety classes or do community service.

You want to hold people responsible, after all, but it's amazing that trying to make people do the impossible is well, impossible.  

The insidious thing, at least from the perspective of those of us who are able to pay our fines when we incur them, is that, as the DOJ letter notes, we lose confidence in the wisdom and fairness of the legal system.

That would only encourage more people to break laws. Why obey laws imposed on us by stupid, corrupt people? goes the thinking.

But to some people, I guess if you perceive somebody as a freeloader, you make it impossible for them to recover. Not sure what this accomplishes, but I'm sure it makes the people who make these laws, and support them, feel good.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, lawmakers there finally repealed a law that prevented people who were convicted of drug offenses to ever receive food assistance again.

Yeah, whoever came up with the original idea is brilliant. When they get out of jail and are trying to get back on their feet, let's cut off their access to food so that they steal and go back to jail at taxpayer expense.

Um, Yay?

The Georgia rule change is reasonable enough. You can get food assistance after jail if you are eligible, if you don't commit a new crime and if you fully comply with any probation restrictions you have.

Makes sense to me.

What doesn't make sense is there are still six states that ban food assistance for drug offenders, even if those offenses took place many years ago.

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