July 5, 2012

The Vestiges Remain (Redux)

Do you ever have one of those situations where you hear a word for the first time and then, all of a sudden, it seems like it pops up all over the place? It’s kind of like déjà vu, but not quite. I’m getting that a lot lately, not with a word but with history, specifically of the kind I’ve already talked about twice in discussing Slavery by Another Name, the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner by Douglas Blackmon.

Last week I discussed an Alabama statute that gives an incentive to sheriffs to barely feed those in their custody by allowing them to pocket any funds left over. The profit motive of local law enforcement was a key part in Slavery by Another Name.

Today finds us back in Alabama, dealing with an even more central theme from Slavery by Another Name, the saddling of poor defendants with fines and other fees they have no hope of paying, leading to their imprisonment. But now there’s a modern twist to the whole situation – the collection of these fees and the incarceration of those who can’t pay them has been farmed out to private industry:
‘With so many towns economically strapped, there is growing pressure on the courts to bring in money rather than mete out justice,’ said Lisa W. Borden, a partner in Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, a large law firm in Birmingham, Ala., who has spent a great deal of time on the issue. ‘The companies they hire are aggressive. Those arrested are not told about the right to counsel or asked whether they are indigent or offered an alternative to fines and jail. There are real constitutional issues at stake.’
There are several problems with this kind of approach, two of which the article touches on.

The first is a theme I’ve gone back to again and again when I write about this kind of thing. Namely, that for-profit private enterprise has no legitimate role to play in one of the fundamental roles of government, locking people up. As one attorney explains:
‘These companies are bill collectors, but they are given the authority to say to someone that if he doesn’t pay, he is going to jail,’ said John B. Long, a lawyer in Augusta, Ga., who is taking the issue to a federal appeals court this fall. ‘There are things like garbage collection where private companies are O.K. No one’s liberty is affected. The closer you get to locking someone up, the closer you get to a constitutional issue.’
But even if that doesn’t sway you, consider the fact that putting people in prison, particularly for minor shit like traffic violations, produces negative practical results:
In a 2010 study, the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law examined the fee structure in the 15 states — including California, Florida and Texas — with the largest prison populations. It asserted: ‘Many states are imposing new and often onerous ‘user fees’ on individuals with criminal convictions. Yet far from being easy money, these fees impose severe — and often hidden — costs on communities, taxpayers and indigent people convicted of crimes. They create new paths to prison for those unable to pay their debts and make it harder to find employment and housing as well as to meet child support obligations.’
Nobody thinks that sending someone to prison is likely to make them a better human being, given the nature of the modern prison system. So why would anyone think that throwing minor law breakers in the klink for not paying mushrooming fees they have no hope of paying is going to work out in the end?

One of the interesting things about the history of Eastern State Penitentiary I visited a couple weeks ago is how sadly familiar political concerns scuttled the original plan for the prison. It’s design had to be changed before it was even complete to hold twice as many inmates as intended. Overcrowding destroyed the one-man-to-a-cell plan.

The same is true today. We want a criminal justice system that works, but we don’t want to pay for it. So the system is overburdened with people and leads to things like this. At some point, we need to learn to think in more long term fashion, because the short term solutions never seem to pan out.

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