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.Β $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.