If the news media did their job, somebody would have asked Ted Cruz about this by now.Something like, “Senator, what is your position on the growing use of debtors prisons in your state and other states around the U.S.?”
On March 5th, Texas commenced what is known as the Great Texas Warrant Roundup, an annual statewide collaboration of courts and law enforcement agencies to squeeze payment of overdue fines and fees from Texans. The Texans targeted are overwhelmingly poor citizens who have outstanding warrants for unpaid traffic tickets, many of which were dubious, the product of aggressive policing to meet budget quotas. The carrot is an amnesty period that precedes the “roundup;” the stick is the threat of arrest and jail for those who can’t pay.
In Texas, a ticket for failing to signal a lane change—a favorite way to start the process of bleeding vulnerable citizens to cover city and county budget shortfalls— will cost about $66. That’s just the beginning, though. Texas adds $103 in court costs, a public defender fee, a fee to put you on a payment plan if you can’t pay, and the always versatile “administrative fee.” Writes the ACLU: “For people who are too poor to pay their tickets, that $66 fine can grow to over $500.”
Once the victim can’t pay the collective fines,Texas will suspend renewal of the driver’s license, adding the License Renewal Suspension Fee, another $30. Now it’s illegal to drive to the work, and without work, it will be impossible to support a family and pay bills. Faced with that dilemma, many citizens drive anyway, and get eventually get pulled over, leading to more tickets, fines, fees…and more debt.
The ACLU relates the case of Valerie Gonzales, a plaintiff represented by the Texas Fair Defense Project in a class action lawsuit against the City of Austin, as it describes how the Great Texas Warrant Roundup operates. Valerie is a 31-year-old mother of five children, all with disabilities, living in poverty. After receiving two traffic tickets nine years ago, Valerie saw her fines expand into thousands of dollars. She lost a job she desperately after she was jailed without a court-appointed attorney to assist her, as the law requires. When other traffic ticket debtors like Valerie are arrested in the coming warrant roundup, judges across Texas will demand payment in exchange for avoiding a jail sentence. Judges will order them to turn over all the money they had on them they were arrested. If the poor don’t have enough money to hand over, judges just send them to jail.
This is, of course, Dickensian. Debtor prisons are cruel, and they also make no sense.
These shakedowns arising out of Kafkaesque legal Catch-22s were flagged in 2014 by journalist Radley Balko in this important piece of investigative journalism, describing the systemic injustices that caused Ferguson, Missouri to explode. Of Balko’s piece I wrote,
Balko describes a toxic, horrific recipe for social dysfunction composed of poverty, ignorance, conflicts of interest, desperation, incompetent city planning, unethical police work, law enforcement quotas, white flight, distrust, public apathy, exploitation and more. Nothing makes sense, except the fact that the system doesn’t work, because no such system could… I know this: an honest and responsible national government and news media would not pretend that the primary problem is racism.
This week, CBS broadcast a story called “How you could go to debtor’s prison in the U.S” highlighting many of the same issues Balko wrote about, but not just in Missouri:
“These practices are rampant across the country, most recently in Louisiana,” Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a senior counsel with the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, said. “Fees and fines emerged as a powerful funding mechanism when state legislatures balked at raising revenue.”An increasing number of states and localities look to close budget gaps through fees and fines accessed through the criminal justice system. The scenario has created a cottage industry of for-profit probation companies like JCS, which oversee payment plans and collect fines and fees on behalf of municipalities.
In 2010, the ACLU found “this troubling trend in five states, and since then an additional three to four states,” Choudhury said. “In 2015 alone, the ACLU and its affiliates filed lawsuits in Georgia, Mississippi, Washington and Michigan,” she said. “This is a problem that truly spans the country.”
This un-American system, operating in many states, hasn’t been mentioned in the presidential candidates debate, though. Fantasy football was. It isn’t just Ted Cruz who should have been asked about it, it’s every candidate, and President Obama too.
Source: Grits for Breakfast
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