Justice and Poverty – Isn’t the person’s dignity more important than their ability to pay?

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image by C. D. Phillips

Today I passed a car where a young father and his child had spun off of the interstate and landed down an embankment and skidded into a muddy grove of shrubs and trees.  A state trooper had stopped to help, so everything would be ok, right?  Not really.

LOSS OF A JOB: As it turns out the young father is a college student, who had been laid off of his job nine months earlier.  His job had required specialized training and he was very good at his job.  To his surprise and the dismay of himself and 200 other employees, the company had decided to outsource their jobs to “Bangladesh.”  Yes, they did not lose their jobs because of anything they had done wrong; they just were being paid more than those in Bangladesh would charge to do the same job.

LOSS OF ABILITY TO PAY FOR INSURANCE: This young father lost his job.  He lost his health insurance for him and his family and lost the ability to make car payments or to maintain car insurance.  The unemployment checks barely paid his rent and a few groceries, much less gas needed to look for a job.   The young couple had to allow the car insurance payments to lapse so that they could continue to make the car payments.  They desperately needed the car to look for a job.  The mother was a part time student, who stayed at home with their young daughter, mainly because they could not afford child care.   Most of her courses were online and she hoped to go to school full time at some point in the future.

CITATION AND GOOD FAITH PAYMENTS: While driving from the grocery store one evening, the young father was stopped by the police.  He was given a citation for not having liability insurance.  It did not matter that the father did not have a job and could not afford the insurance, it was still required.  The young couple eventually regained their ability to pay for insurance and made payments to pay off the debt for the citation.  Payments were made and it was understood that the debt had been paid in full and life went on.

VICTIM OR CRIMINAL: The state trooper did not ask if there were injuries, he asked for the young man’s I.D. and walked back to his squad car.  Unknown to the father, who had relocated his young family to a nearby college town where he could pursue courses for retraining, there was a warrant issued for his arrest by the town they had left.  This warrant was for failure to pay the citation from nine months earlier.  The young man explained that he and his wife had paid off this debit, but the officer still needed to handcuff his wrists and transport him to the nearest city police station.  Meanwhile, a family member had been called and arrived to take the daughter to warmth and safety (this all happened in a severe thunderstorm with torrential rain), while the trooper took her father away.  The car was towed and the family member had to pay an extravagant fee of 300 dollars to have the disabled car pulled from the mud and towed to the family’s home.

How did this young man, who was a good father, an “A” student and a terrific young man go from, being the victim of a car accident and potentially being killed, to being treated like a dangerous “criminal?” 

A system bloated by bureaucratic red tape, inefficient policies, incompetence and a bias against the poor.

Over a 30 dollar clerical error, this man, who had done nothing wrong except to be too poor for proper tires on his car and the ability to keep up his car insurance the year before, was degraded and treated like a criminal?  The state trooper had treated him with some dignity and had waited until his daughter was out of sight to put cuffs on his wrists and then place him in the police car.

The young father was drenched to the bone from the downpour; in shock from the accident that may have taken his only means of transportation to go to school and for his wife to go to her part time job; in shock and disbelief about being in cuffs and “in trouble” when he had just narrowly escaped being killed in a car crash.

The trooper believed the young man and assumed a mistake had been made or at least an easy explanation was available and called the neighboring police dept.who was  in charge of the warrant.  The young man was released from the cuffs and believed he would have to sign a few documents and then be on his way…surely it was all just a clerical error and all would be ok.  Right?  Nope.  The officer in charge of the warrant arrived from the neighboring town and re-cuffed the young man.  This time the cuffs were very tight and uncomfortable and the hands were placed behind the back.  The area in the back seat was cramped and the young father found himself on his way to the neighboring town’s police station.  What on Earth?!!!!   What about my car?   What about my baby?  What about my wife?  What about my back?  What….?

When they arrived at the police station, in the town where the warrant was issued, the officer told the young man that he would have to come back to the town six weeks later and see a judge.  There would be an additional $150.00 attached to the $30.00 that was not reported to the couple previously.  Yes, he was supposed to do this without a car, without a job, without money….should he let the car insurance lapse again to pay the fees that he has NO CHOICE but to pay.  He can’t afford an attorney to make it all go away.   He still can’t find a job and even if he did, how would he afford child care for his daughter?  He is barely able to make it while he is being retrained to do a different job. Now he has no car.  Greater debt.  No job and no hope of the cycle of poverty ending.

NO CHOICE: The young man reluctantly signed all necessary documents to make sure he would be  free until his court appearance.  One big question needed to be answered “, How do I get back to my home?” “That’s your problem buddy.”  To which the father retorts, “Now wait a minute?  I have no car. You bring me here in cuffs and I am now finding my own way back?”  The annoyed officer then responds, “Hey I can take back the citation and transport you to another county.”

What is wrong with this picture?  Why was this young man treated like this?   He was poor.  Why was he poor?  His job was outsourced to another country.  He couldn’t afford car insurance.  He was stopped before he could get car insurance.  He paid in good faith.  The bill wasn’t fully paid and a warrant was issued without his knowing it.

REALITY: It is difficult to manage money and budget for things when you never have enough money at one time to save for a rainy day…for a tow truck…for an unfair citation….

So, what happens if the young father goes to court and he cannot pay the mounting fees?  He is offered jail time….all for $30.00.  All that trauma; inefficient use of resources; degrading of a human being; ….all because of $30.00.  Wasn’t this young man’s life and dignity worth more than $30.00.  Wasn’t his life and dignity more important than his ability to pay for insurance? 

SOLUTION: If car insurance is “mandated,” then shouldn’t it be subsidized for those who are too poor to afford it?  Health insurance is!  Remember, it is “unconstitutional” to require everyone to purchase health insurance.

So what needs to change?

  • Shouldn’t we be required to treat all persons with dignity regardless of guilt or innocence?
  • Perhaps the amount a person pays for a citation should not exceed a certain percentage of their income.
  • Do we really need to issue citations to people who are in the emergency room and are suffering injuries?   This too has been reported…a cashier told me once that she was issued a citation in the ER because she was found at fault in the accident.  The citation couldn’t have waited until she was off of pain meds for her broken leg?
  • Do we really need to cuff a person who just survived a car accident?
  • Do we really need to treat everyone as though they are armed and dangerous?
  • Could the paperwork not have been signed in the other town?
  • Is there perhaps a more efficient use of tax payer dollars?

YOUR CRIME IS YOU CAN’T AFFORD TO PAY! I have been in court in the past to support a friend.   I couldn’t help but notice the people who were brought into the courtroom in shackles.  “What had they done?  Are they violent?  What on earth?’”  To my surprise, most of them were there because they couldn’t afford to pay a fine.  Shackled and treated like criminals…paraded in front of everyone in the courtroom, just to have the judge ask if they wanted to serve more time in jail since they couldn’t pay?  Really?  Some of them had not shown up for a court date.  Some of them said they did not know about the court date.  “Too bad, so sad” The prosecutor and the attorney square off in front of the judge and it all seems to be business as usual.  From my observation, they were all poor.  Their greatest crime was poverty.

CYCLE OF POVERTY AND JAIL: In cases like these, the citizen has an infraction of one kind or another, fails to appear in court or fails to pay their citation on time because of loss of job, no car….poverty…so the court assigns more debt, more fines, ….the hole become deeper and deeper.  Attorneys get their money.  Judges make their decisions and poor people in trouble become deeper and deeper in trouble and it seems to be a perpetual cycle of poverty, incarceration, fines….greater poverty and so the cycle goes.

HYPOCRISY: I am sickened by the sight of women serving time in jail for writing hot checks for groceries to feed their kids and at the same time to know that a person, who has credit enough to get a credit card, may simply drive up that debt and declare bankruptcy without having to wear shackles, or to pay more and more fees and fines.  What the hell?   Bankers can steal millions and millions and the government bails them out; oil companies spill billions of gallons of oil and they are fined 150,000, but a poor guy doesn’t realize he owes 30.00 and he is deeper in debt and faces potential incarceration and the amount he owes ends up being more than he can make in a week! ?

If you are rich, you may get away with murder and stealing.  If you are poor, you could end up in prison.

This injustice must stop.

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