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Municipal Violations Punish The Poor

Tagged under: Research USA Court System Criminal Justice
By Omid Ghaffari-Tabrizi on September 8, 2015 - Based on this John Oliver segment.

Municipal violations are some of the most basic crimes. Things like jaywalking, speeding, or trespassing are things that most people do on an everyday basis, simply hoping they don’t get caught. For some people who are caught, these tickets and the fines that go with them are just annoying. A few hundred bucks and life goes on. But for others, these tickets for a few hundred bucks mean the start of a horrible downward spiral.

An example is Harriet Cleveland. She received a few traffic tickets she couldn’t afford and suddenly, while babysitting her granddaughter at home, she ended up being arrested and thrown in jail because she didn’t pay up. This is a common story for many people.

An image of Harriet Cleveland with a quote from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Imagine being pulled over for speeding in Dekalb County, Alabama. For doing 25 mph or less over the speed limit, the smallest speeding ticket available, you end up with a $255.50 fine. The minimum wage there, $7.25/hour, means you need to spend over 35 hours of work just to pay the ticket off. That’s right – nearly one week of work to pay a ticket. If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, that could mean the difference between food and rent.

An image of Dekalb County's Sheriff's Department.

You can also end up with all sorts of surcharges and fees. For instance, in California, the fine for running a stop sign is $35. After the state gets their way with your ticket, the final charge is $238. That’s right – more than $200 in additional charges on top of your ticket. Some courts allow payment plans, but even that can end up being more expensive. As the Brennan Center for Justice points out in their report "Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry", Illinois adds on 30% of the total amount left if you fall behind your payment plan. In 9 states, you have to pay a fee to even enter a payment plan, like New Orleans’ $100 entry fee.

An image of the perversion of the scales of justice.

44 states charge people a fee just to be on probation. These are ways for local services to be funded without raising taxes. For example, the Department of Justice found that Ferguson, Missouri issued fines just to raise government revenue. Officers competed to see who could issue the most fines in one day because promotions depended on how much revenue was generated by that officer. One police commander bragged that lines were 10-15 people deep to pay traffic fines, to which the city manager responded "great work!"

An image of a Ferguson Police SUV.

Attorney General Eric Holder also commented on the absurdity of this situation. He cited the example of a person who received a ticket in 2007. She had 2 parking tickets that totaled $152. As of the time Attorney General Holder spoke, she had paid $550 in fines to the city and still owes them $541. That is more than $1,000 for $150 in tickets. Using fines to fund government wasn’t going on just in Ferguson. Calverton Park, a neighbor, received 66% of its revenue through fines and fees levied against the poorest of its residents. The people in charge of the city DEPEND on people committing crimes just to survive.

An image of Attorney General Eric Holder.

In many states, failure to pay a fine on time results in your driver’s license being suspended. In Orange County, Florida, they literally dressed up as the Grinch to make fun of people who had their licenses suspended. They claimed that the people who lost their licenses were driving recklessly. In the very same report, however, the reporter pointed out that most were taken simply because the people couldn’t afford to pay. In fact, according to the Florida DMV, 88% of all licenses suspended in 2012 were done so because the person failed to pay the fines.

An image of Orange County authorities dressed up up as the Grinch to mock people with suspended licenses.

If a person loses their license, they can’t legally drive to work anymore. In New Jersey, the Motor Vehicles Affordability and Fairness Task Force Final Report found that in 2006, 64% of people who had their licenses suspended were unable to keep their jobs since they could no longer drive to work. Thought it couldn’t be worse? It can. Human Rights Watch did a piece on how private probation companies, like Judicial Correction Services and Sentinel Offender Services, charge the state nothing while charging millions and millions to the people they monitor. Someone like Hali Woods is a perfect example. She received a no seat belt ticket for $25 with court costs of $16. She couldn’t afford, so she was put on Judicial Correction Services probation. Her $41 fee ended up having a $35 monthly payment. Any payment she made was applied first to the JCS fees then to the ticket. She told a judge she could pay the ticket but not the extra fees. She has paid nearly a hundred dollars, but ended up owing over $300 in total fees – and she still hasn’t had a penny paid towards the fine.

An image showing which states use private probation service providers.

The absolute worst is the fact that you can actually end up in jail for your failure to pay these fees. Recommendations from these companies can send you to jail. Tom Barret, a veteran, stole a $2 can of beer. He knew he shouldn’t have done it, but was the consequence equal to the crime? Judge for yourself. He received fines he couldn’t pay and ended up in the hands of Sentinel Offender Services. He ended up getting a court-ordered leg monitor for $360 per month, or $12 a day. He sold his own blood plasma to try to keep up, but couldn’t. He walked everywhere because he couldn’t afford bus fare. He didn’t eat because he couldn’t afford food. He simply couldn’t make $12 a day. He was locked up 3 times over stealing that can of beer.

A quote from the Brennan report on barriers to reentry.

The main reasons municipalities sign up with JCS or SOS is to save money, but it doesn’t even do that. As Tom Barret’s lawyer explained, it costs $50 a day to jail someone in their state. With Tom in jail for over 60 days, the state paid over $3500 to house him. Think about it – a $2 can of beer became a $207 fine, with $360 per month in costs, and $3500 in jail costs. For $2. Remember Harriet? She lost her car through a title loan. She got her utilities shut off. She lost her job. She kept paying and paying and paying JCS, but it all went towards fees rather than the ticket. She paid $2000 in one shot and still couldn’t break through. The Southern Poverty Law Center got her out of jail after 10 days, but hasn’t freed her from the financial noose around her neck.

A political cartoon showing the evolution of debtors prisons.

If someone violates the rules of society, they need to be punished. But if that punishment is a fine, then it needs to be based on the ability to pay. If they can’t pay, then they should do community service. That is Tom Barret’s attorney’s position, and he’s a self-proclaimed conservative. Debtor’s prisons were supposedly outlawed in the 1800s.

Americans are encouraged to contact their their local and federal representatives to make sure the companies that have taken over the criminal justice system have to follow the very laws they supposedly are paid to enforce.

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