In a wild goose chase for money, cash-strapped cities and states across the U.S. are turning to private companies that collect fees from citizens for misdemeanor crimes. Here’s what happens, as reported in yesterday’s NYT. Say you’re pulled over by a traffic cop for a driving violation and charged with a fine. If you can’t pay immediately, you’re turned over by the court to a probation company. If still unable to pay the fine, you can be jailed even as fines and fees grow larger by the day. For example:
Hills McGee, with a monthly income of $243 in veterans benefits, was charged with public drunkenness, assessed $270 by a court and put on probation through a private company. The company added a $15 enrollment fee and $39 in monthly fees. That put his total for a year above $700, which Mr. McGee, 53, struggled to meet before being jailed for failing to pay it all.
The courts need money:
J. Scott Vowell, the presiding judge of Alabama’s 10th Judicial Circuit, said in an interview that his state’s Legislature, like many across the country, was pressuring courts to produce revenue, and that some legislators even believed courts should be financially self-sufficient.
That’s what’s driving this crisis. Courts, cities, states—all are underfunded. Essentially, poorly structured, poorly organized, poorly managed and overextended as they are, these states can’t deliver the government people want at a price they are willing to pay. Hence there is a huge, hungry, mindless revenue suck from ravenous governments that MUST HAVE THE MONEY NOW.Sadly, much of the burden falls on the poor. Courts are using fair means or foul to make money on everything from parking and speeding violations to the prison system. Cops with speeding ticket quotas and other forms of government by “gotcha” are an annoyance for the prosperous middle class; for those just trying to get by, they are a disaster.What people on both the Left and the Right need to get through their heads is that this system doesn’t work and can’t work. The people busy writing new mandates, formalizing procedures, giving state and local governments more and more things to do (like checking Big Gulp sizes) don’t get that stories like Hills McGee’s are the other end of the well-intentioned things they are trying to do. It doesn’t happen everywhere in exactly this way, and legal challenges to the system might find some of these practices unconstitutional, but as states are trying desperately to function in an untenable situation, the poor and the weak end up feeling the impact.Anarchy isn’t the answer, of course, but the current bureaucratic system and approach to governance has to change. This is not about trimming a couple of mandates here and there or about across the board five percent budget cuts.It involves the re-imagination and the re-engineering of the state, and it’s going to take a new kind of worker, a new kind of organization, a new way to think about the responsibility of the community and individuals to each other and to the state.The bureaucratic state models we developed in the last 125 years can’t meet the challenges of the new century, and the effort to get by with these hopelessly retrograde and clunky systems is like trying to run a marathon in running shoes that are two sizes too small.