Tell me. Are we allowed to do anything we like to those with the least power and money in our society? Are there no limits? We know that in some states, private actors have been permitted to charge 500-1,000% for loans, but what about public actors? Can you think of any debtor-credit practices that rise to the level of human right violations? This is question Chrystin Ondersma (Rutgers Newark School of Law) and I have been asking ourselves in connection with a project on which we are working.
Earlier this month, the New York Times ran a story that chronicled several people jailed for minor infractions (such as unpaid speeding tickets or other driving violations), and then charged huge prison costs after serving jail time resulting indirectly from these unpaid debts. For example, one woman was fined $179 for speeding, failed to show up at court (she says the ticket bore the wrong date), after which her license was revoked. When she was pulled over for driving without a license, her fees totaled over $1,500. Unable to pay, she was handed over to a private probation company and jailed, racking up an additional fee for every day behind bars. She’s been locked up three times for that one driving offense, serving 40 days, and now owes nearly $3,000. Another guy featured spent a total of 24 months in jail and owes $10,000 for what started out as very small dollar minor infractions. Read the article for more of the same.
But here is my question…..Are towns that are desperate for revenues turning to increased probation fees to make ends meet? In one paper, the Bipartisan Conference of State Court Administrators argues that in these traffic violations are becoming a tax on the poor. An Alabama Judge also claims that his state’s Legislature has pressured courts to produce revenue, and that some legislators even believe courts should be financially self-sufficient. Such fees are being used to fund retirement for court officials and make up for other shortfalls.
According to another study by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, lots of states (especially big populous ones) now impose large user fees on prisoners, which in turn impose hidden cost on communities, taxpayers and indigent people convicted of crimes. It would be one thing to charge these big fees for violent criminals. It is quite another to change them to people because they didn’t pay their debts.
One thing is clear. The devisors of these plans are not collections attorneys. If courts are that desperate for money, why not charge more to people bringing civil suits, rather than trying to raise money off the indigent. Wouldn’t that raise more revenue?