The New Debtors Prison Dilemma

We have a new debtors prison for our times. It happens when poor people don’t have money for the numerous fines we all incur in our daily travels. Whether it is speeding tickets, fix-it tickets, expired tag tickets, seatbelt tickets, or the rest, the police are regularly handing out fines to citizens. But what happens when you don’t have money to pay those fines or the ability to go to court? Debtors prison, that’s what:

“These aren’t violent criminals,” says Thomas Harvey, another of the three co-founders of ArchCity Defenders. “These are people who make the same mistakes you or I do — speeding, not wearing a seatbelt, forgetting to get your car inspected on time. The difference is that they don’t have the money to pay the fines. Or they have kids, or jobs that don’t allow them to take time off for two or three court appearances. When you can’t pay the fines, you get fined for that, too. And when you can’t get to court, you get an arrest warrant.”

Arrest warrants are also public information. They can be accessed by potential landlords or employers. So they can prevent someone from getting a job, housing, job training, loans or financial aid. “So they just get sucked into this vortex of debt and despair,” Harvey says.

This is the same vicious cycle that people in debtors prison were caught up in. They couldn’t pay back their debts because confrontations with the law minimized their money-making options.

It’s very simple really. Fines should be made illegal. If I damage someone’s property, I should pay for it. But all of that restitution should go to the victim of the crime, not the civil government. Fines are intrinsically false and immoral. They assume that the civil government is always the victim of crimes. That’s ridiculous. So, everything wrong I do is against the State? Who does the State think she is? God?

Well, actually that does explain a few things.

Leave a Reply