Let Them Eat Cake

I’ve complained many times before about how there is little justice in the justice system. The laws of nature and the laws of man are not fair in the least.

This is 2014, yet money can still buy freedom. If you can’t afford freedom, well, too bad. You can eat in jail.

I heard a story this morning on the NPR about poor people going to jail because they cannot afford court costs. This should not be. You should not have freedom because you are rich and you should not go to jail because you are poor.

In the story, they talked to one man who lost a job he was about to start because he spent 22 days in jail. He didn’t have enough money to pay court costs.

In Grand Rapids, Mich., Stephen Papa, a homeless Iraq War veteran, spent 22 days in jail, not for what he calls his “embarrassing behavior” after he got drunk with friends and climbed into an abandoned building, but because he had only $25 the day he went to court. At his hearing, the judge asked for a $50 first installment on his $2,600 in court debt, but Papa, who was homeless and on the verge of starting a new job, had only $25.

Even when Papa told the judge that he could afford the court fees once he started the job he’d just been offered, the court showed no leniency. The judge told him he should have gone out and collected bottles for the recycling fee.

Grant Hindsley for NPR

Stephen Papa. Don’t even get me started on homeless veterans. Soldiers who serve their country should not be homeless. (Grant Hindsley for NPR)

In another case:

Jared Thornburg was ticketed for making an illegal left turn. He went to court and the offense was dropped to driving a “defective vehicle,” a ticket with $165 worth of fines and fees. At the time, he was homeless and unemployed. He had recently lost a job at an oil field after a serious workplace injury. So he couldn’t pay the ticket.

The day before he was to start a job at Taco Bell, he says, he was arrested for not paying the fines, which had increased to $306. He was sentenced to 10 days in jail.

The system is broken. I’ve seen it myself as both a defendant and a victim.

We spend millions of taxpayer dollars housing and feeding inmates who are locked up because they can’t pay the fines, while real criminals, like the asshole who tried to kill me, walk away free. The monster who tried to kill me is free forever, because he simply fled the state and all the arrest warrants have expired.

My friend Rarasaur is sitting in jail at this moment for a crime she did not commit, because she could not afford the money and energy to fight it anymore. She is innocent, but she is also poor. She has invested all of her money in legal defense, yet she is in jail. That is completely wrong.

For a traffic ticket, I had to borrow money to pay nearly $1200 in bail. Bail for a traffic ticket that isn’t even a misdemeanor, but an infraction. I got the ticket last August. I had to pay $1200 in bail in December after I applied for a one-time only three-month extension so that I might have time to scrape together the money. $1200 is a ton of money to me. It’s more than I have. I don’t get my day in court until July of this year. The court will sit on my money, earning interest, for a year, if I get any of it back at all.

Whatever happened to the 6th amendment speedy trial clause? A year is not speedy to me. Even taking the three-month delay that I asked for into account, that’s still nine months just for a simple traffic infraction.

If I wasn’t able to scrape the funds together and go into debt for bail on a traffic ticket, I would have a warrant out for my arrest. If I had been arrested on that warrant, not only would I have to pay the original $1200, but I would have to pay court costs on top of that. I would have had to borrow more money that I didn’t have, and if I couldn’t, I’d end up just like Stephen Papa and Jared Thornburg–in jail because I couldn’t afford freedom.

When you are arrested in the United States, according to the law, they are required to read Miranda rights which state, in part, that you must be clearly informed that you have the right to consult with an attorney and to have that attorney present during questioning, and that, if you are indigent, an attorney will be provided at no cost.

It’s U.S. law that defendants are Mirandized with “an attorney will be provided at no cost,” yet more and more courts are charging for this right:

The NPR survey found, with help from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, that in at least 43 states and D.C., defendants can be billed for a public defender. We found two typical charges: an upfront application fee to hire a lawyer, which can range from $10 to $400; and reimbursement fees, which can cost thousands of dollars.

How is this right? How do they get away with putting poor people in prison for not paying fees that they really shouldn’t be charging in the first place?

These are the poor and disenfranchised. These are the people who sometimes don’t even have homes. They might not have jobs, or if they do, they’re barely making minimum wage. These are the people who can least afford court costs, yet they’re being charged anyway. If they can’t afford it, they’re put in jail, costing taxpayers countless dollars for housing them or passing the costs along to them in the form of room and board bills.

If I didn’t have generous friends who were willing to loan me $1200, knowing that it would be a year before they got any of it back, I would be one of them.

Had I chosen to pursue civil action against the asshole who tried to kill me and took everything I had of value, it would have cost me thousands and thousands of dollars and it would have taken years. Since he was never criminally prosecuted, because all he had to do was flee the state to avoid punishment, my chances of winning were slim to none. I never got justice. He got freedom. I’m still saddled with his debt from fifteen years ago. He never paid a dime.

The system is broken. It is so broken that it makes bile rise up in my throat when I think about it. It makes me want to cry when I think of all the people in jail today, like my friend, who are there because they can’t afford to be anywhere else. I don’t know what the solution is, but something has got to change. We should not tolerate this in a free society anymore.

*Let them eat cake is a phrase widely attributed to Marie Antoinette, but most likely she never said it at all.


More Serious Business.

There are 100 comments

  1. NotAPunkRocker

    I get angrier and angrier the more I think about these types of things. We have a famous case here where a death-row inmate was exonerated of murder because of DNA evidence. He was in prison 17 years when he was cleared…but the governor at the time waited to let him out because he had prior convictions for petty theft. WTF?

    I know we have it better than some countries, but the idea of ex-pat life appeals to me more and more every day.

    Like

      1. NotAPunkRocker

        His case, 17 years:

        http://www.innocenceproject.org/Content/Earl_Washington.php

        Another, 27 years:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Haynesworth

        And a more recent one. Note that even though the story was recanted, they still made him jump through hoops to be freed:

        http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/virginia-continues-to-mangle-justice-in-johnathan-montgomery-case/2013/12/26/6dd687a2-6c13-11e3-aecc-85cb037b7236_story.html

        Sorry for all the links; feel free to delete. This is something I get pretty fired up about, in case you can’t tell… ;-)

        Like

        1. goldfish

          “By delaying full exoneration, Virginia compounded Mr. Montgomery’s injury. Even as a free man for 13 months, he has remained a registered sex offender, unable to go near schools and parks, and has been compelled to meet regularly with a probation officer and barred from leaving town without permission. Since his conviction remained in force until last week, most potential employers showed him the door.”

          Disgusting.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. justme3362

    I read the same article and had the same reaction. When I was in jail, I met incredible women who, as they put it: were poor, and to boot, black. I didn’t think this was possible before I saw it with my own eyes (the black part, yes, but not the debt part).

    There’s something incredibly messed up with this system, and it bums me out when I consider articles like this alongside others that talk about how the richest 1% control half of the global wealth.

    What do we do??

    Liked by 1 person

      1. justme3362

        I think writing and connecting is a good first step. I’m sure that one day, it’ll click and they won’t know what to do when I morph into a thunder-cnt from hll. (I’m really looking forward to that day!)

        Liked by 1 person

  3. swo8

    I think the same thing is happening here in Canada. Our political system is overwhelmed with sleaze and a fuzzy sense of entitlement. Meanwhile the commoner would go to jail for what a lot of them are doing. ( I may go to jail for saying this)
    Leslie

    Like

      1. swo8

        We are sinking fast. Corruption is rampant. I think we are disparately in need of a whole new model of governance.
        In Canada, I would start by removing the title “Honourable” before any politician. Most are far from honourable.
        Leslie

        Liked by 1 person

  4. The Cutter

    The system was set up by rich people, so it’s no surprise that it favors the rich. The only way to change it is to get lucky and become rich yourself. And then, well, who cares? You’re rich!

    Like

            1. goldfish

              I’m not sure I understand what you mean. How is getting off because you are able to afford good lawyers, while others are sent to jail because they can’t afford that not bullshit?

              Like

                1. ksfinblog

                  I survived and I am stronger for it; I won in the end but it was a battle that left scars…. angry scars……. you will find it so rampant that it is almost normal to other people……. anger doesn’t accomplish much

                  But a sustained campaign spread over the years….

                  That is the actual reason, I started to study the world, money and powers and how the unholy trinity works

                  Temperance tempering the temper…

                  Like

  5. djmatticus

    Reblogged this on The Matticus Kingdom and commented:
    The system is broken – so sayeth Fishie, and I completely agree with her. Pop on over to read what has both of us irrate at the moment. Maybe together we can come up with a good solution, because something needs to change. The system has been broken for too long and should not be tolerated as is anymore.

    Like

  6. djmatticus

    I’m angry. I’m angry for you and Rara. I’m angry for the dealings two friends of mine had with the courts in San Diego. I’m angry with my own court experience.
    I wish I had a solution. I wish I even knew where to begin.
    Do we need to elect people that are ready and eager to make changes to how things are?
    Do we need to write petitions to create new laws that ensure the rights we are supposed to have we are actually being afforded?
    What else?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. goldfish

      I really don’t know. The fact that I haven’t the foggiest idea what to do about this makes me even angrier. We’ve got to do something. I don’t know what yet, but I’m not giving up.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. djmatticus

        Hmm…
        We should probably start by creating a clear definition of what we want to accomplish. We can’t just start with the vague notion of the system being broken and wanting to fix it… If we have a clear goal, then it should be easier to figure out how we get there… sending emails to state reps and asking them to look into the issues (not likely to cause any major changes, but an easy first step), reaching out to media and seeing if they are interested in picking up any of these stories (Not our friends, as they’ve asked to keep media out of it, but the others seem fair game – especially since NPR already ran one of the stories), … and then move on from there.
        So. What do we want?
        A more common-sense approach to serving time for minor infractions, inability to pay small fees, non-violent charges…
        Kind of wishing I’d paid more attention to Government in high school…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. goldfish

          True. Goals are important if you ever want to meet them. A little at a time I guess.

          The first goal would be that courts follow a little thing called the Constitution of the United States. For example, not Mirandizing people with one statement, then turning around and charging them legal fees.

          Another thing I would like to see is some sort of clear criteria for the difference between those who are unable and those who are unwilling to pay fines besides just the judge’s discretion.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. djmatticus

            So… the first goal – I wonder what the ACLU has to say about that. I know there is a local chapter in LA. Might be worth sending them an email or giving them a phone call to ask if they know how courts are able to charge fees for public defenders.

            Second goal – that seems like something we could write up, get some signatures on, and get rolled into a law… Though, able vs. unwilling will need to factor in some sort of standard of living, otherwise all wages could be garnished for those who have jobs but still can’t “afford” to pay the fines.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. goldfish

              I’m not sure if CA is included in the 43 states where defendants can be billed for a public defender. I’ll have to do some digging.

              Unwilling v. unable is a sticky wicket. It would have to take a lot of factors into account. Right now, it’s at the judge’s discretion. One of the judges they interviewed in the NPR article this morning said he judges “unwilling” by how well the defendant is dressed and whether they have expensive looking tattoos.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. djmatticus

                I’m not sure decisions like that should be left up to judges’ discretion… But, I know I have trust issues with people in positions of power and authority, so, perhaps my opinion should be viewed with that bias in mind.

                Like

                1. goldfish

                  I’m with ya there. The thing is, I’m not even sure it’s constitutional at all to charge fees for public defenders, especially when the defendant is found innocent. Why don’t I have a law degree?

                  Like

                2. djmatticus

                  I’m not sure that people who can memorize decades of case law are really the people who should be lawyers either. They are so worried about cases that set precedence for their current situation that common sense is lost.

                  Like

                1. djmatticus

                  :-(
                  On a slight tangeant, I just heard that someone had a two page hand written letter returned to them because it “smelled like perfume.”
                  This just keeps getting more and more absurd.

                  Like

                2. djmatticus

                  I know. :-/
                  I hope it was a one-off. But, I know some books were returned undelivered from someone else because they didn’t have the content information displayed on the outside of the box… and it’s all adding up…
                  I know they have a lot of rules in place for the safety of the guards, but this just seems absurd.

                  Like

  7. pavanneh

    This is still America and peaceful protest works. There are many areas where judges are elected and not appointed. Do not elect judges who won’t agree to some form of financial reform in the justice system. The amazing thing is that opinions about Lawyers and Judges have not changed since the system was first founded in Rome. I forget who it was, I will have to look it up, but basically he said lawyers were scum of the Earth and that the judicial system was corrupt. If it was bad then I think they would all hang themselves to see what it is now.

    Like

  8. 1jaded1

    We shouldn’t tolerate this flawed system…but whst can we do? I want to say, “Off with your heads” to the self proclaimed almighty and entitled. They are no better. We all go into the cold hard ground when we die. Shame.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. pavanneh

      What needs to be done is protest and calling attention to the problem. There are so many people out there that are being harmed by our “justice” system. The problem is it is a very frightening monster to face. It is all too obvious what can happen to someone who really wants to stand up to the system. It is all to easy to be framed and sent into the “system” to disappear. It will take large groups of people in different locations protesting and bringing abuses to light in order for anything to be done. There just isn’t enough of an outcry to get attention. And the “monster” is very large and well armored in the “law”. I have to admit I would be afraid to do anything about it either without a large support system.

      Like

      1. 1jaded1

        Thank you. I agree that we need protest. I fear that any protest will be snuffed out or that the protesters who want to cross the finish line will be arrested because of this clusterf*ck of a system. Catch 22.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Paul

    No doubt there are issues with both the judicial system and the political system (in Canada too). They can both be improved.

    Like

  10. The Moon is a Naked Banana

    One of the sad things about organisations is that they so often loose any sense of human feeling. But as well as that, the above cases are just so stupidly handled. It would be so much better for the economy if the guy had been allowed to start his job instead of using up taxpayer’s money by sitting in jail.

    Like

    1. goldfish

      I know, right?

      “I am about to start a job and can afford to pay then.”
      “To jail with you!”

      Ridiculous. Both men in those examples lost the jobs they were about to start because of that.

      Like

  11. draliman

    It’s better in the UK but leaning in this direction.
    For a less serious offence (like you haven’t murdered anyone) generally you get “police bail” – the police decide to let you roam free but you have to go into a police station of your choice to sign in every day or so.
    We have “legal aid” which is free, but the budget is being reduced. In fact a big fraud trial was halted by the judge a couple of weeks ago because legal aid was withdrawn and the defendants couldn’t afford a barrister – no lawyer, no trial.

    Like

  12. Queen of Rawr

    Reblogged this on RawrLove and commented:
    Please take a moment to read this new post from Fish of Gold. She touches on several key issues with the state of our judicial system that we all need to be upset about and work on improving.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. wellcallmecrazy

    Just wanted to add to the discussion here. Are you aware that as of 2014, one out of every 40 adults is either a convicted felon or ex-felon? Think about the impact of what that means. 1 in 40 are going through hell….or will be…trying to find a job, secure housing, open a bank account, register to vote, etc. Now don’t get me wrong, I feel strongly that there is a small percentage of very violent convicted felons that probably deserves all of this and then some. However, most (actually 72%) are non violent criminals….most of them being drug crimes, not to mention the thousands who are wrongfully convicted. This estimate is now up to 7% of all inmates. That is a huge number close to 200,000 current inmates. Also, the ACLU national office is very aware of the prejudice against the poor and works hard along with many other rights groups to try to affect change within the justice system. System change is notoriously very slow and the only thing that has ever been shown to speed things up is a massive outcry by the common person enmass.
    Great Blog! Keep on going!

    Like

  14. Rob's Surf Report

    I believe the problem is that the criminal justice system has become a profit-driven industry like everything else in our country, and as a result it leaves us victims in circumstances when we don’t play to their business plan. In this case, it’s paying the fines and it used to be they couldn’t put you in jail if you were unable to pay something like court costs or a mandated fine that wasn’t attached to jail time. Apparently they’ve backpedaled on that. They’re just big jerks, and I mean it!

    Like

    1. goldfish

      It is a profit driven industry now. Or at least, no longer just a cost center. Legal representation should damn well be an option for everyone accused of a misdemeanor and higher. The amount of money you have shouldn’t enter into it. That people are turning down legal representation because they can’t afford to pay for a public defender is disgusting and contrary to the spirit of the law.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. yogaleigh

    I’ve been unhappy about this kind of injustice for years. Rara’s case has troubled me a lot. Since her story seems to be that an accuser basically got the DA to have her arrested without ever conducting an investigation, I’m smelling corruption and wondering why the US DoJ isn’t looking at the Orange County DA’s office…. That feels like a small thing that could happen.

    Liked by 1 person

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