See if you can find the logic in this. A local government issues traffic fines to residents for infractions like not wearing a seat belt, expired registration tags or a broken taillight. If the fine isn’t promptly paid, then interest and penalties pile up, and a $50 or $100 ticket can quickly balloon to be thousands of dollars. If a person cannot afford to promptly pay the full ticket, what sense does it make to keep piling on extra monetary demands?
It happened to Leah Jackson in Otsego, Minnesota. She was ticketed for obstructing traffic and fined $135. She had just gotten a new job but hadn’t gotten a paycheck. Immersed in her new position, she inadvertently forgot about the ticket. Unbeknownst to her, the city suspended her driver’s license, but she had to drive as part of her job. She then got three $200 tickets for driving without a license. Over time and overwhelmed with the financial burden, Jackson’s fines and penalties rose to a grand total of $13,000.
It’s not just traffic offenses that can bury a citizen for nonpayment. In Texas, an open-heart surgery patient was confronted by U.S. marshals over an old $2,500 student loan debt that had grown to $12,000. He was arrested for failure to appear at a court hearing that took place without his knowledge during his recovery. A woman in Alabama was put in jail after she missed a court date about her unpaid utility bill. In Oregon, heavy fines are levied against parents whose kids play hooky from school. Nonpayment of the fine means potential time behind bars.
Does it make sense to punish people who owe a debt by putting them in jail? They can’t earn money to pay bills if they are locked up. And aren’t jails already full enough? The same argument could also be used in jurisdictions that use indebtedness to suspend driver’s licenses or seize vehicles. How can people get to and from work to repay what they owe if they don’t have transportation?
Here’s a sobering statistic. The Federal Reserve Board estimates that 40% of Americans don’t have enough cash in the bank to cover an emergency expense of $400. A hefty traffic ticket plus, say, an unusually high utility bill in the same month could put a person in a terrible downward slide.
This idea of criminalizing debt – especially among those least able to pay – is pushed by zealous bill collectors who partner with amenable city officials. Prosecutors have allowed bill collection companies to use their official letterhead when sending out past-due warning letters. Judges have been known to issue arrest warrants for overdue bills as low as $28. In a report from the American Civil Liberties Union titled “Pound of Flesh,” it is estimated that “Tens of thousands of these warrants are issued annually, but the total number is unknown because states and local courts do not typically track these orders.” Judges usually set bail for the exact amount the debtor owes to the bill collector, often adding hefty court costs on top.
It is increasingly clear that municipalities are relying on these fines to help balance their budgets. Rather than work out some sort of repayment plan with the offender or require days of community service in return for the debt, cities and towns continue to try to squeeze those least able to pay. The hope, I suppose, is that a relative or benevolent friend will open his or her wallet and come to the rescue. If that doesn’t happen and the person is jailed, well, the state subsidizes the cost of incarceration.
Congress abolished debtors’ prisons in 1833. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on three different occasions that it is unconstitutional to imprison citizens who are too poor to repay debt. The high court said judges must take time to distinguish between those who are clearly without means from those who have the financial ability to pay but are “willfully” ignoring their responsibility. And just a few months ago, in a rare unanimous ruling, the justices invoked the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “excessive fines” and ruled that states and localities cannot impose excessive fees, fines and forfeitures as criminal penalties.
Laws are designed to control public conduct so that everyone is kept safe. That is completely understandable. Scofflaws should never be tolerated, and when they are discovered, they should be punished. But common sense should prevail in cases where indigent people simply cannot immediately pay a debt. Tainting a poor person with an arrest and imprisonment record helps absolutely no one. Alternative ways for offenders to work off their debt to the community are out there. Let’s find programs that can both benefit society and help the least fortunate maintain their dignity while they pay off their debt.