Poverty fees

Here in Philadelphia, we have people who have been in jail for weeks because they can’t afford the drunk and disorderly fine. Nothing quite like the high cost of being poor:

CHILDERSBURG, Ala. — Three years ago, Gina Ray, who is now 31 and unemployed, was fined $179 for speeding. She failed to show up at court (she says the ticket bore the wrong date), so her license was revoked.

When she was next pulled over, she was, of course, driving without a license. By then her fees added up to more than $1,500. Unable to pay, she was handed over to a private probation company and jailed — charged an additional fee for each day behind bars.

For that driving offense, Ms. Ray has been locked up three times for a total of 40 days and owes $3,170, much of it to the probation company. Her story, in hardscrabble, rural Alabama, where Krispy Kreme promises that “two can dine for $5.99,” is not about innocence.

It is, rather, about the mushrooming of fines and fees levied by money-starved towns across the country and the for-profit businesses that administer the system. The result is that growing numbers of poor people, like Ms. Ray, are ending up jailed and in debt for minor infractions.

“With so many towns economically strapped, there is growing pressure on the courts to bring in money rather than mete out justice,” said Lisa W. Borden, a partner in Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, a large law firm in Birmingham, Ala., who has spent a great deal of time on the issue. “The companies they hire are aggressive. Those arrested are not told about the right to counsel or asked whether they are indigent or offered an alternative to fines and jail. There are real constitutional issues at stake.”

Geeze, wouldn’t it make more sense for towns to hire these unemployed people to collect the money? Of course, they wouldn’t be able to pay big kickbacks – er, campaign contributions. But maybe that’s the point.

One thought on “Poverty fees

  1. These cash hungry municipalities should not incur the delay and the administrative burden that this process entails. Instead, why not just lock up people for being poor? Solves homelessness and so many other social problems. Reduces traffic congestion and pollution. Simplifies the judicial process. Just charge them if they look poor, and if they show up in court with no resources, lock ’em up.

    This also has the side benefit of increasing incarceration rates with the attendant potential political fundraising windfall for local pols who control the contracting process for privatization of these special prisons. We could call them, uh, let’s see, how about Debtors’ Prisons.

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