Gov. Charlie Baker filed a bill that would assist individuals who owed, but were unable to pay court fees such as the $150 charge that indigent defendants must pay for a public defender, probation supervision fees or other fees.
A recent review of about one hundred citizens who were sent to jail from Worcester, Plymouth, and Essex counties found that most were incarcerated for minor offenses, including automobile violations that did not involve operating under the influence, disorderly conduct, public drinking, or trespassing. If the citizens cannot pay the fees resulting from their minor offences, under state law, they can receive a $30 “credit” for each day in jail. Under the new law, the jail rate increases to $90 and there is a community service option.
In other words, if the rich kid from Wellesley gets rowdy after a Patriot’s game and in a drunken rage, overturns a few garbage cans in the parking lot of the bar where he watched the game, he just has to show up at court, write a check, pay the fees, probably wind up on probation for a while and if he keeps his nose clean, even the record of that will disappear. However, if that young man is from a poor working class family in Brockton or Fall River and can’t afford the few hundred dollars in fees, that young man goes to jail. Once in jail, he might lose his job and the downward spiral continues.
To the rich man, the $300 fee (for example) means little or nothing; perhaps one less Saint Laurent polo shirt this year. For the working class young man, $300 means a missed rent payment and eviction from his apartment, or a missed car payment.
We are increasingly accepting a two tiered America, where the rich are granted rules not available to the working class. The infamous case of “affluenza” is familiar to most of us. Ethan Coach, recklessly driving under the influence, killed several people and was sentenced to rehabilitation instead of prison because he was rich. Our current president is defying our Constitution and refusing to divest ownership of his company or at least place it in a blind trust because, according to his attorney the president “should not be expected to destroy the company he built.” President Carter placed his peanut farm in a blind trust once elected, a company he built, but apparently a peanut farm is “peanuts” and no match for a global hotel empire. Again, one set of rules for the rich, another set for the rest of us.
Under current law, a judge can dismiss fees for the poor, but few do. Under the current law, those who cannot pay are sent to jail for a time, to pay their debt. Under the new law, the poor will be allowed to gather roadside trash, or other such work, for a few days to pay off their debt. Under the current or new laws, the rich are unaffected.
Of course, there must be some sort of penalty for anyone who commits a crime, even a minor offence like disorderly conduct and littering after a Patriot’s game. However, the “”fine time” bill only focuses on the poor.
My suggestion would be a means tested sliding scale of fees that would be low enough to alleviate the harshness to those with less and to high enough to give an equal sting to those with plenty. Anything else seems un-American.