Why I refuse to send people to jail for failure to pay fines – The Washington Post


Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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33 Responses

  1. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Much of this seems to emanate from a pervasive belief that people who do “wrong” are bad, flawed, and must be punished.

    Call me a statist but, yea, I think people should need licenses to drive. But the response to most* people who are driving without licenses shouldn’t be to fine or jail them… it should be to help them get a license. Driving without a proper car seat? Yea, that should not be permissible. But I’m fairly confident that the overwhelming majority… probably like 99.9%… of people who are cited for such find themselves in that position not because they want to be but because they either don’t know any better (more likely when dealing with older children, as the age/size at which children can ride without a safety seat keeps getting higher) or because they find themselves in circumstances where they simply don’t have much choice; car seats are expensive. And while we want these people to stop these practices ASAP, do we think they are MORE likely to buy car seats after we fine them several hundred dollars?

    When the criminal justice system becomes so focused on generating revenue and doling out punishment, this is the shit we get.

    * I say most because some people have proven that they should not be allowed to drive (e.g., serial drunk drivers) and a different response is warranted.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Kazzy says:

      Re: Car seats – I think it is Finland that has a program where, when a woman gives birth, she gets a baby care kits with a bunch of essentials. She is not required to accept the kit in whole or in part (i.e. she can pick & choose what she needs from it), but I think it included a basic car seat for an infant. Nothing fancy, but one that met the regs on car seats.

      Honestly, for stuff like this, people shouldn’t get fined for the first offense, they should be required to sit through a class that educates them about crash dynamics and what happens to passengers who are unrestrained when a car is hit\hits something.Report

      • Avatar notme in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        You are thinking of the baby box. They don’t get a car seat.


        • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to notme says:

          That’s it, thanks!

          Still, with the savings such a box offers, a person can probably afford a basic needs car seat.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Oscar Gordon says:


            In reading that article, I considered writing a post exploring that very topic: should we supply parents with car seats? Or other baby essentials? Maybe I should write that post.

            Note: This should not be construed that anyone has a write or entitlement to a car seat or any other baby stuff. Only that it might be a good idea to make it available to them.Report

            • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Kazzy says:

              If making sure infants have what they need is important to us, sure.

              My wife & probably would not have accepted such for Bug, but we already had all of that from baby showers or just our own purchasing.

              I guess it comes down to, what is the cost of the package versus the cost of an infant not having such things available to them/their parents?

              Also, just looking at the picture, the contents seem to be of basic to moderate quality. Avoiding a desire to stock such a box with high end gear means more resources to go around (see previous conversations around fitting low income housing with high end appliances/amenities/etc.).Report

            • Avatar notme in reply to Kazzy says:

              Sure, I’m all for giving free stuff out if somone else has to pay for it. Aren’t we all?Report

  2. Avatar Christopher Carr says:

    Louis CK has a stand up routine where he gets mad at the bank for hitting him up with an overdraft fine because they’re he’s already poor and they’re punishing him for not having money. There’s some truth to it. It seems to me like a guaranteed minimum income would cure the most social ills here. We already have a welfare state. We should just organize it to allow more choice and to be more efficient.Report

    • Avatar notme in reply to Christopher Carr says:

      No, they are fining him for spending more than he has and making the bank deal with it. The simple answer is to spend less and stay within your budget not have other folks give you more money.Report

      • Avatar Will H. in reply to notme says:

        Actually, they are encouraging the purchase of overdraft protection insurance.
        It’s sort of like the difference between paying for a parking tag or having to dig out some change for the meter.
        One big sausage out to split you one way or another.Report

      • Avatar Snarky McSnarksnark in reply to notme says:

        Up through the 1980s, there was a Fed rule that overdraft fees could be no more than the reasonable extra cost the bank incurred for extra processing. A typical overdraft fee now hovers around $39, representing about a full day’s post-tax income for a minimum wage worker.

        It’s all well and good to cite binary conservative rationales for such practices (“They did wrong, and thus deserve to be punished. Period.) But the fees have reached punitive levels, and some banks “earn” upwards of 30% of their profit from such fees. And banks structured their offerings to maximize such fees, through such policies as payment re-ordering, to ensure that the maximum number of late charges could be assessed when multiple payments have been made from an account, until it was prohibited by Dodd-Frank. I bank with Wells Fargo, and they don’t even offer the option to have NSF purchases from a debit card declined: the bank will instead approve the payment and then nick its customers for the NSF fee.Report

  3. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    When I have served as a traffic court judge, I sometimes got situations like these. Traffic infractions typically result in fine-only sentences, and the amount of the fine is controlled by very rigid statutes and court rules. There’s a good reason for that: if it were more discretionary, it would be, and thus justice would be not rendered on an equal basis to everyone.

    I’ve had these litigants before me. They admit their guilt, or I otherwise get them with guilt pre-determined. So they are subject to the fine and I lack discretion to adjust the fine. If I hear them say that they aren’t able to pay the fine, I push back a bit: “Really? The clerk will work out a payment schedule with you, you know,” and if they push back again, “No, it’s really hand-to-mouth for us and even ten dollars a month impacts us,” that’s when I offer community service.

    So this one time I get to that point in the colloquy. “Okay, you can’t pay. So let’s see about getting you in to community service. Let’s check the chart and see how many hours…”

    “No, Your Honor,” the guy says to me, “I already have over three hundred hours of service on other things to do this year. So send me to jail, please.”

    “I don’t want to do that. This is a money fine and I am not sending anyone to jail for a money fine. They put me up here on this bench to do justice, and jail for a fine is not justice.”

    “Really, Your Honor, I’d rather you just sent me to jail for this. I’ll answer for what I did, but more community service is too great a burden on me, so send me to jail.”

    So I sent him to jail. Very clearly he understood what his options were, he understood there would have to be something, and he made his choice about what that would be. Still, of all the things I’ve done as a pro tem judge, this is the one that sits the least comfortably with me.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Burt Likko says:

      For how long, @burt-likko (assuming you can share that)?

      I can actually imagine this being preferable to a number of people assuming the sentence is short. A weekend in prison where the person might not be working anyway and is getting three squares a day (even if it’s shit on a shingle) might be a better option than giving up 6 weekends picking up trash.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Kazzy says:

        If I recall correctly — and that’s an iffy proposition — it was ten days and I’m told that the L.A. County Sheriff has a five-for-one credit system for time actually served, so he would have got ten days’ credit after two days’ actual time incarcerated.

        I’ve thought through exactly what you describe here. Certainly to be in that position where jail would look better than more community service and ten dollars a month payment would constitute an impact — maybe yes, it was a better deal for him.

        At least, that’s what I tell myself. I’m still more than a little bit disgusted with the whole thing because I really object to debtor’s gaol.Report

    • Avatar Francis in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Caltrans community service is hard work. In my wife’s misdemeanor days, she had plenty of clients who would much rather do the time.

      And since the State considers being out of prison to be a benefit, the number of days of prison time that a prosecutor would requires, as opposed to hours of Caltrans, tends to be much lower. You can get free and clear of the charge with an overall commitment of less time by taking the prison. And thirdly, since jails are massively overcrowded, if you show up to do time for failure-to-pay, you have a reasonable chance that you’ll only spend the weekend in jail and then the sheriff will send you home.

      yes, it’s all stupid and wasteful. It’s a massive drag on the economic wellbeing of poor communities and yet we don’t seem to have a better solution.

      speaking of being a judge, any news on your application for state court judge?Report

    • Avatar dexter in reply to Burt Likko says:

      @burt-likko, A couple of things about fines. In the late sixties I got a ticket for going six miles over the speed limit and the fine was ten dollars and they dropped two dollars off if I went to traffic school. I was making six dollars an hour then so the fine cost me an hour and half of labor to pay for it.
      In the early nineties I got a ticket for going sixty five on the interstate where the limit was fifty five. The fine was one hundred and fifty dollars and I was charged twenty five for traffic school so the ticket would not be put on my record. I was making fifteen and hour so the total labor for the ticket and school was eleven and a half hours.
      If it was up to me traffic fines would be a percentage of net income instead of a set fine. One hundred and fifty dollars means something entirely different to a burger flipper than it does to a rich man. Wasn’t one of the things that had the people of Ferguson ticked was the cops using tickets to raise money for the city.Report

    • Just thinking outloud here (or whatever the online equivalent is), but to me, community service is involuntary servitude. It’s a loss of liberty. In that way, it’s comparable to jail. Community service isn’t debtor’s gaol, but it does strike me as possibly debtor’s servitude. Maybe community service itself is comparably problematic to debtor’s gaol. It strikes me as a situation where there’s no good choices, but it’s better to have choices than not.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        Community service is better than being in jail. You can go home at the end of the day, see your kids and have a regular life as opposed to the unpleasantness of being in jail. Back when i worked for a charity we used community service guys to do a lot of moving. They were pretty good workers, i didn’t have to chase after them at all. They all put in good days of work, so good for them and i even better they weren’t sitting in a jail.Report

      • The Thirteenth Amendment permits involuntary servitude “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Which is the situation I was dealing with as a traffic judge. So I didn’t have a problem ordering community service at all.Report

        • @burt-likko

          I didn’t mean to invoke the 13th, and I’m well aware that it permits involuntary servitude in cases of conviction of a crime, although I can see how you might not think so from my comment.

          That said, the concern you express in your comment about “debtor’s gaol” is that the system in practice might function more as a punishment for being poor as opposed to punishment for (minor, traffic) crimes. I’m suggesting that community service, as an alternative to payment, might be in the same ballpark as “gaol.” It’s still in practice, at least sometimes, a punishment for being poor. It might ease your conscience when someone accepts community service and doesn’t press for jail time instead, but the problem is still there. (It would probably ease my conscience, too, if I were a judge. I don’t mean to (ahem) judge you. You have a job to do and from the many years I’ve been reading you, I feel safe in saying that you probably do the job as conscientiously as possible.)

          At the same time, as @greginak says above, jail might be much worse than community service. (And fortunately for me, I’ve never had to find out.) Still, in your example, you suggest that some people when given the choice between two bad options, might choose jail as the least bad option.Report

          • It’s still in practice, at least sometimes, a punishment for being poor.

            To be clear, I believe it’s probably better to have that option, than not to have it.Report

          • Avatar greginak in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

            @gabriel-conroy I’ve known quite few people who had been convicted of something. Never had one choose jail over community service. CS is generally short term 40-80 hours in my experience, so that is 1-2 full time weeks of work. At some point there will always be some penalties for breaking laws. Penalties that keep people in their community and potentially doing something useful and active is better then penned up in jail.

            I have seen people choose jail over halfway houses but that is a different story.Report

            • @greginak

              Burt’s example seems to provide a counterpoint to what you describe, so that in at least some cases, someone might choose jail over community service.

              That said, I can’t really argue with your experience. And my own instinct is to think community service is better than jail time.Report

            • Avatar Francis in reply to greginak says:

              To reiterate, plenty of people take jail to get free of their obligation much faster. Take it from a SoCal professional.Report

    • Avatar Snarky McSnarksnark in reply to Burt Likko says:

      In Finland, they decided that fixed fines did not fairly distribute the deterrent value of traffic tickets, so set traffic fines as a percentage of that person’s income.

      This resulted in a $103,000 speeding fine for a Nokia executive (back in the day when Nokia was growing quickly).Report

    • Avatar Will H. in reply to Burt Likko says:

      I know a guy who, right now, is waiting to sit out a driving while suspended, but they keep resetting the court date hoping to get some money out of him.
      It’s that blood/turnip continuum:
      You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip, but you can sure kick the sh!t out of one.Report

  4. Avatar Jon Rowe says:

    Great stuff. In PA civil creditors aren’t even permitted to garnish wages if they are successful in a lawsuit. Let governments get their “fine” $ from individuals on terms closer to what civil creditors can.Report