Crime to Be Broke in America

On December 15, 1791, the first ten Amendments to the Constitution, later known as the Bill of Rights, were ratified. During 150th anniversary commemorations in 1941, Congress passed a joint resolution authorizing FDR, “to issue a proclamation designating December 15, 1941, as Bill of Rights Day." Today is that day. I wouldn't have known except I had cause to Google "Bill of Rights" earlier this week after reading a particular Facebook thread. How's that for timing? Here's the story. 

My daughter, Grier, has a friend who graduated from high school last year. Right before he moved into the dorm, he told her he hoped he didn't get a weird roommate. She said, "You are the weird roommate."

I've mentioned my BFF, Autumn, before. She was my weird roommate. I rolled 7s with that crap shoot because she's not only my kind of weird; she's also brilliant and passionate and caring. For years she was a public defender. Now, she is an attorney in private practice with her own Arkansas Times byline and the most awesome little girls ever. (I'm definitely biased when it comes to Autumn, but this is an objective truth.) Autumn has a platform, and people listen to her because, like I said, she's brilliant and passionate and caring.

This week she started a Facebook discussion about court fines and payment plans. Here are some takeaways.

  • Arkansas law (and presumably other state law) allows for installment fees ($10/mo/court in addition to fine/s), so people who cannot pay up front pay more for the same infraction.

  • People cannot be jailed for attempting to pay or if they are too poor to pay. The $10 fee accrues regardless.

  • In states across America, people who can't pay their court fines and fees can have their drivers' licenses suspended.

  • Some cannot afford things like a safe home/auto and health insurance because of large monthly payments toward a ballooning balance.

  • Costs, fines, and fees often fund our court system.

The 8th Amendment seems to apply: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted;" however, the Supreme "Court has elected to deal with the issue of fines levied upon indigents, resulting in imprisonment upon inability to pay, in terms of the equal protection clause, thus obviating any necessity to develop the meaning of 'excessive fines' in relation to ability to pay." 14th Amendment due process and equal protection promises make debtor's prisons unlawful, but are poor people really getting equal protection? If poor people end up paying more for the same charge, is that not excessive? Because millions of American adults and children struggle with debt stemming from economic sanctions issued by the criminal and juvenile courts, some are calling for a revival of the excessive fines clause. Read more here.

On this Bill of Rights Day, see if you can pass a Bill of Rights quiz. Read the Bill of Rights. Spend more time with Amendments 4-8, which address the rights of the accused. Really dig in and read Peter Edelman's Not A Crime to Be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America