Monday, April 11, 2016

Okay, Fine

A couple of weeks ago, I was driving along behind a rather beaten-up looking older-model compact import car. You know the sort - it's the kind of inexpensive vehicle driven by a person of modest means, useful for getting from one place to another as long as the weather isn't too nasty, and available from any used-car lot or from an internet classified ad. As I drove along behind this particular car, every so often a puff of white smoke would billow out of the open driver's side window before quickly dissipating into nothingness. As we pulled up to the corner between the Eddie Bauer Outlet store and the Red Robin, what was left of the driver's cigarette arced out of the same driver's side window, to land in a shower of sparks on the pavement.

And I was reminded of Debtor's Prison. The concept has been making the rounds in "the Media," commonly in outfits with a Left-learning demographic. The concept is simple enough. Courts sentence people to pay fines rather than serve time in jail, but when people are judged to be willfully non-compliant, they're often assessed further fines and interest or arrested and sent to jail. To the degree that it's relatively easy to find someone who will plead being too poor to pay, journalists hold these sympathetic souls up as victims of modern day Debtor's Prisons, where people languish for no greater crime than not having enough savings to pay their jailers. Of course, it's not really that simple, but it makes a tidy narrative. But like most tidy narratives, it leaves parts out.

When the driver in front of me threw that lit cigarette out of the car window, the sum of nine-hundred and fifty dollars came to mind. That was because, on the back seat of my car, was a garbage bag, one that I had picked up when I last went for an emissions test. Given out by the state, it listed the fines for certain varieties of littering. Lit cigarette, it listed, $950. And I wondered, what would become of the driver of the car if a police officer had seen that cigarette being tossed from the open window?

The car pulled into the left turn lane at the corner, and I going on ahead, drove past, and noted that the driver was a young woman dressed for a fast food job. And I was curious if she knew the risk that she had taken in throwing that cigarette away. Even at Seattle's future $15 an hour minimum wage, that fine would represent every time of her pre-tax income for 60+ hours. At current suburban minimum wage, it's closer to two full weeks of full-time work. I doubted that she has that kind of money simply lying around.

And that meant that if a police officer had seen her throw that cigarette on the pavement, it could have been the start of a downward spiral. One wonders how many Debtor's Prison stories began with just one such moment of carelessness.

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