Monday, April 14, 2014

Broken Stones

Criminal justice debt drags people further away from reintegration with civil society. A person's life can spiral out of their control when interest, late fees, revocation of a driver's license and ineligibility for public assistance, mean that unpaid criminal justice debt snowballs. You can't get blood from a stone but if you try, you can break the stone. ("Debtors' Prison for Failure to Pay for Your Own Trial")
In the past few years I've met many broken stones.

I've been surprised to learn how many inmates at the county jail are there for failure to pay fines and how many of them have lost their jobs due to incarceration for failure to pay fines. I was also surprised to learn that people who are serving sentences for misdemeanor charges are required to pay to stay. If they have no resources, they can be thousands of dollars in debt to the community when they are released.

Besides saving taxpayer money, the thinking behind our local pay-to-stay program is that it will encourage people to stop committing crimes. I get that, and it may be true for some. But based on my experience, I suspect it is a predominantly counterproductive idea, and I was glad to read in the news yesterday that it could be on its way to becoming a thing of the past.

Sure inmates are in a bind because of their own choices. I do believe we all need to face the consequences when we screw up. But most of them are already paying for their choices in a multitude of ways. And they will be paying for their choices long after they've served their sentences. If we want them to choose a legitimate path, it doesn't make sense to me to marginalize them even more by pushing them further into debt. It also wouldn't surprise me if the pay-to-stay program actually ends up costing taxpayers more money than it brings in because it can keep people revolving in and out of jail longer.

What does make sense--from both a public safety standpoint (politically feasible) and a humanitarian standpoint (which seems to be less politically feasible these days)--is to do what we can to draw people in from the margins of society.

No comments: