Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Places to sleep: debtors' prison

BoingBoing's Mark Frauenfelder tells of a man jailed for failure to pay a fishing fine. A contributor to the lively comment thread on that item links to Barbara Ehrenreich's grand summary of recent immiserations, including the growing likelihood that people who get arrested or cited for being poor (e.g. sleeping outdoors) will then go to jail for failure to pay fines.

The odd part to me is that when middle-class people with fresh eyes discover this stuff they call it debtors' prison. Puts a whole new spin on what elsewhere is an ordinary fact -- that people who don't pay citations sooner or later get arrested and then, if they're lucky, get credit for time served. Yeah, the funny part is, the newbies are right. It is debtors' prison, isn't it?

What's further odd to me is, in the fishing fine case, the ACLU of Michigan is arguing that the courts' injustice lies in their failure to offer community service or a payment plan as an alternative to cash on the barrel. That fails to address the problems of people who are both unable to pay (neither sooner nor later) and unable to comply with a community service requirement for reasons of mental or physical disability.

Around here, the San Francisco DA's office has done some good in offering people dismissals of very minor infraction charges in return for proof that they have received social services of some kind. The psychology of that approach is weird, but at least it gets some cases thrown out. Still, it's only partway toward fairness. Shouldn't there be an outright severe-disability exemption available?

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