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Have you ever been in jail? I have. No, I didn’t do anything. I’ve worked in criminal justice. I was an intern in a U.S. Probation office and I worked with juvenile delinquents. I’ve visited jails. I didn’t mind the little town jails. They seem almost friendly. But the city jails, especially the big cities. They were awful. I always wanted to leave as quickly as humanly possible.
The big city jails are crowded. The clientele varies from next to nothing in terms of offenses (not being able to pay a fine) to people who can’t make bail for major offenses like murder. There are always prostitutes. And they don’t look like the ones on television. They aren’t pretty and they don’t have hearts of gold. They look beat up and worn. They talk nasty and think it’s funny. The atmosphere is oppressive and the facilities limited.
People used to tell me about how they wish they could live the life of the jailed or the inmate of a prison – free medical care, free dental, three squares a day and you don’t have to work – paradise. It takes an incredible absence of knowledge and poor judgment to believe that about one of these places. In one big city jail I visited, the cells housed twenty four prisoners each. That’s 24 beds and two steel toilets out in the open. (The seasoned professional I was with told me to keep my eyes open. Sometimes the inmates throw excrement at you.) There’s a television posted out of reach at the end of the cell. If you’re not in the bed nearest it, it’s a little difficult to see and hear, and if you are at the far end, it’s about the size of a postage stamp. And that was a brand new model installation that was not overcrowded and run down.
They took a mother of seven away from her children and put her in one of these places for non-payment of a fine. She didn’t commit a crime and they put her in there. She owned money and they locked her up – debtor’s prison – you know, those things we abolished in the United States.
She was scared. She was stripped and cavity searched. It’s not in the article but that’s what happened. It’s standard procedure. It should only happen to people who committed crimes. It’s demeaning and humiliating.
They put her in there with real criminals. Being a mother of seven is probably not a good preparation for jail. She had high blood pressure. She was middle aged. She was a law abiding citizen trying hard to raise her children.
She had 55 truancys that she owed thousands of dollars for. That sounds like a lot. But it’s not. The offenses date from 1999. That’s fifteen years. For one child that is an average of three and one half offenses per year. For seven children, that’s an average of one-half a truancy a year. I’m not sensing Al Capone here.
She’s dead. End of story. A county in Pennsylvania has criminalized non-attendance in school and chosen to punish the parents with thousands of dollars of fines. And when they don’t pay, they go to jail.
But the story gets better. You see, if you read the article, it’s obvious the court knew she was on welfare and had no money. She didn’t bring her paperwork showing her lack of income. The court was punishing her for not having proof of what was obvious.
Obviously, that’s justice. Well, in Pennsylvania.
Where’s the business ethics?
This isn’t a business? The city uses the truancy law to impose thousands of dollars of fines which it extracts under fear of imprisonment. Isn’t that policing for profit? More and more cities and counties are using these kinds of fines to generate revenue. It’s deliberate policy. It’s a recent development historically and my understanding is that it is increasing in use across the nation.
If a city or a county uses fines for a revenue stream, justice is not a real consideration. Getting the money is. They’re using the jail to make money.
I appeal to your judgment – are fifty-five truancys over fifteen years worth thousands of dollars of fines? And isn’t it obvious that these fines and the penalties for non-payment are going to fall most heavily on the poor?
Jails and prisons are supposed to be for criminals. They are not supposed to be tools for cash strapped municipalities to balance the budge on the backs of the poor.
When the courts are no longer dealing justice but making money for the government, the central purpose of the criminal justice system is perverted and forgotten. The inmates are people being punished for committing crimes. They are living, breathing revenue streams who must be subject to fines and stacked penalties to squeeze out that last dime.
Justice is the goal we should aim at as a society, as a nation and as individuals. There are other ways to raise money. There have to be.
On the Same Subject.
More than 1,600 people have been jailed in Berks County alone – two-thirds of them women – over truancy fines since 2000 …