Wickersham’s Conscience pulls out Ferguson as his whipping boy in a diatribe about Beauregard bringing back debtors’ prisons. The specifics on how the legal system “took advantage of” poor people have been beat to death, but were resurrected January 2017 by WC to paint Mr. Sessions as a Dickensian fiend. Well, I am no fan of Sessions, but there are very good reasons for his actions here, whether those actions are the result of racist ideology, or “Trumpist philosophy” (what an oxymoron that is).
To deal with the last bit first, Session pared away “guidance” by which the executive branch appeared to pre-empt local discretion under the law. Nothing unlawful or reprehensible about that, on its face, is there? I may find that frustrating, because I endorse the policies behind the “guidance”, but in essence Sessions is correct in finding that such accretions are problematic.
Now, let’s put aside for a moment the outrage and excesses seen in Ferguson and what you arguably have (as in, what you can argue you could arrive at legitimately) is a “system” that is trying to impose order on a community of scofflaws. Let’s compare what we learned about Ferguson with what happened in Anchorage with respect to automated speed enforcement, so that our analysis isn’t contaminated by extrinsic outrage. Anchorage has an horrendous problem with people violating traffic laws. The apparent solution (photo radar) resulted in a huge hue and cry, however. Why? Because everyone was speeding, everyone was getting hefty fines, and no one wanted to pay said fines. Well, the good folk who wanted the speed limits enforced argued, “If you don’t want to pay the fine, don’t do the crime”. But the Anchorage scofflaws were not about to be undone by technology. They beat photo radar in criminal court on a resolvable technicality, and the outrage over the program precluded politically it being implemented as a even a civil measure. We have lots more people dead from speeding vehicles. If you REALLY want to control behavior, what are you to do?
Clearly, if you want to put an end to Behavior X (whether that is speeding, running red lights or beating up on your wife) there has to be a clear ban on the behavior, and a set of actually enforced consequences. The liberal tripwire here is the concern that the consequence is intentionally being contrived such that the “perp” can never escape the the circle of ever rising debt or imprisonment. Yes, yes, yes! We can all agree that this is problematic, and yet day fines are still not widely implemented in the US. Day fines gob smacked many Americans for the first time when The Atlantic carried a story about a monstrous Finnish fine. Day fines impose fines that are proportionate to ones ability to pay (see, for example, How To Use Structured Fines (Day Fines) as an Intermediate Sanction . The question for the outraged, as far as I am concerned, is whether a system of days fines in a place like Ferguson would remediate the issues decried.
“Nay, nay, nay,” I say. Lets face it, the folk in Ferguson would not have paid the fines under any circumstances. Sorry, but if you make the day fine just a copper, you will have those who appear with a hapenny. Why? For the same reason you can impose a 45 mph speed limit and someone caught doing 60 will complain. While the Ferguson situation is clearly “over the top”, go to any court system in the country and visit the “wants and warrants section” and you will see the same thing. Review the collection of fines, and you will recognize that our judicial system is largely ignored until you hear that loud clack as the electronic door lock on the jail sets, or you are made to empty your pockets on the witness stand. I know. I have had to do debtor hearings where the debtor, claiming poverty, is wearing $30K in jewelry. Yah, tools of their trade…..
“WHOA!”, you say, “I never never knew you to be such a retro asshole!” Sorry, but as we promote an “open” society, we are also promoting a society where there are few norms outside of the law; i. e. the law exists to set the norm. While you may have cleaned up after your dog, and controlled him while out walking in the past out of a sense of personal and communal responsibility, once such a shared sense is lost, the only thing that keeps you from letting your dog shit on my porch is enforcement of the law. Enter civil fines. You violate the norm you get assessed a fine. You fail to pay the fine, your action gets criminalized, and the monkey chases the weasel.
The fly in that ointment is a constabulary that won’t enforce the law (which in many cases is what we have in Anchorage). If you don’t want to simply punish offenders (punishment is really not conducive to alleviating criminal behavior) then we could try to tax them, and the ultimate taxing of an individual who simply refuses to comport themselves with society is to put them to work paying off their debt, lol. And that is a debtor’s prison. With or without day fines.
Perhaps instead of being outraged by the concept, we should explore ways to make it viable. Or we could just say, “You can break the law all you want, because we don’t care.” Your choice….