Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Cash and Carcerality

There are problems with the way courts use financial punishments, like fines and restitution payments, with regards to people who don't have the ability to pay them (as opposed to willful non-payment) especially in jurisdictions that are cash-poor to the point that they rely on such means to plug holes in their budgets. (Which one would think creates a conflict of interest and/or incentives for abuse. Thought experiment: Everyone in such a jurisdiction scrupulously follows the exact letter of every law for a month, removing any reason to legitimately write anyone a ticket or charge a court fee for anything. What do you expect would happen? Cutbacks in services? "Creativity" on the part of the authorities and law enforcement when it comes to issuing citations? Creating new offenses to ensnare people?)

But a broken system is different from the historical practice of Debtors' Prisons, although there are similarities. Social justice advocates use the term because they feel that the modern system lacks appropriate safeguards to keep the truly indigent (those who legitimately cannot pay) from being considered scofflaws (or people who will not pay), and is thus a throwback to the 19th century practice of imprisoning people who did not pay court judgements against them, without considering whether they could not or willfully would not.

I think that many media outlets have adopted the term as a more upscale variety of click-bait than "One Weird Trick" or "What Happened Next Will Shock You," especially for sites that allow commenting; the specter of Debtors' Prison is almost invariably good for outrage mining, as people rant and rail against "the system" for "imprisoning people for the crime of being indigent." Often, it's clear that they didn't read the article beyond the headline, and maybe the opening hard-luck story of some poor unfortunate who finds themselves caught in a spiral of debt following some trivial infraction, like a parking ticket or dressing in a way that local leaders disapprove of. (No, seriously. In some places sagging pants, a fashion designed to mimic prison life and associated with urban gang culture, has been legislated against. It's easier than raising taxes.)

Part of the problem with the current "debate" over fines, court fees and the like is that the sides are, as often happens, talking past one another, as they make emotional appeals to people already on their side or who are ignorant of the situation. The system is broken, as any system would be, as it attempts to reconcile differing demands that, together, call for perfection. Social justice advocates call for a system that never punishes those who cannot pay, while promoters of law and order call for a system that never overlooks those who will not pay. Each side sees errors of indicative of fundamental injustices.

For all of the emotionality and hyperbole, it's worthwhile for use to understand how the system works and come to some conclusion (although it's unlikely to be a unanimous one) as to how the system should work. But the injection of the loaded term "Debtors' Prison" into the debate works against that.

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