Tickets Are Creating A Debtors Prison System

By Mike Tront

Anther week and we have another controversial police shooting.  Police came to the home of Korryn Gaines to arrest her after she missed a court date relating to a traffic indecent.  A man also living with her was to be arrested on a warrant relating to an assault case.  The man managed to run and was later apprehended.  Ms. Gaines, on the other hand, apparently hit her breaking point and refused to surrender.  After hours of a tense standoff, she allegedly pointed her gun toward the police, an officer shot at her, she shot back, and then she was fatally shot.

Clearly, it is never wise to point a weapon at a police officer.  If she had surrendered herself she’d be alive today.  She’d also likely be out of jail in a matter of days, if not hours, after her arrest.  After all, it was just traffic fines they were after her for, not violent crime.

What makes this case so newsworthy and controversial is the fact that Ms. Gaines happens to be black.  This sparked many on the left who are claiming this is a case of unfair treatment due to her race, and many on the right are unquestionably backing the actions of the police department.  But what both sides are overlooking is the bigger picture.  No one is asking the question that really matters:

Should the government be allowed to use police and prisons to collect debt?

After all, this is what this was all about.  Debt.  Ms. Gaines owed the local government money.  That’s it.  She failed to show up to her court date to make arrangements to pay her debt, so they sent armed men to her home to drag her in by force.  The implication being that if she couldn’t pay up, they’d lock her up.

Sure, if she would have showed up to her court date, and explained that she couldn’t afford to pay, they would have probably let her go.  For now.  But as we all know, that won’t go on forever.  Eventually you have to pay up or else.  Counties are increasingly using jails to lock up people who don’t or can’t pay fines.

From NPR – As Court Fees Rise, The Poor Are Paying The Price:

NPR obtained a year of jail records from Benton County and sampled data over a four-month period in 2013. On a typical day, about a quarter of the people who were in jail for misdemeanor offenses were there because they had failed to pay their court fines and fees.

Benton County District Court Judge Robert Ingvalson defends the county’s heavy use of fines and fees — and jail time for those who don’t pay. He says it’s needed to hold people accountable when they break laws.

“If they won’t pay the money, the only thing we can take from them at that point is their time,” Ingvalson says.

On the surface, this makes sense.  After all, isn’t he right?  Without prison, won’t people just not pay their fines?  Some people won’t.  But there are better ways.  Police and prisons are for violent people that need to be removed from society.  If I can’t afford to pay a fine, should I be removed from society?  More importantly, is it morally right to lock me up in a cage if I can’t pay a fine?

Private debt collectors

Now let’s look at a similar industry.  Private debt collection.  If I owe money to a creditor, things go a little different.  Now it does start out the same.  If I refuse or can’t pay, whoever I owe money to can take me to court.  Just like a government imposed fine, I have a right to argue in court about whether I actually owe this debt and to possibly make arrangements to pay this debt if I do owe it.

But there’s one huge, and important, difference.  No one has the right to compel me, by force, to show up to this court date.   Now if I choose not to show up, more than likely it will be ruled that I owe the debt in question.  After all, I’m not there to provide any evidence that I don’t owe it.  Same goes for the government court.  If I don’t show up, it’s assumed I’m guilty and the debt is now owed.  However, after I don’t show up to a government court, they not only rule that I owe the money, but they now put a warrant out to arrest me.  The police department is now used to bring me in by force.  The court then threatens me with prison if I can’t pay them.

Back to private debt.  Let’s say a bank gets a ruling that I owe them money.  They now have the right to collect that money from me.  But not by physical force.  No bank can send armed men after me to drag me in front of a judge, who will then tell me to either pay up, make arrangements to pay up, or I get locked in a cage.

So by the logic of the judge in the above NPR article, without police and prisons collecting these private debts, no one would pay, right?  Wrong of course.  These debt collectors can garnish wages, garnish tax returns, put liens on property, and report to credit monitoring agencies if the people are paying or not.  Basically, if a person has the ability to pay, and the debt is actually worth the effort of collecting, the bank will be able to recover some money at some point.  It’s not a perfect system.  Some people know how to game the system, file bankruptcy, and don’t ever pay their debts.  On the other side, some debt collectors use reprehensible tactics to convince people to send them money.

In the end, however, if you don’t or can’t pay a debt, you don’t go to jail.  You don’t have to worry about armed goons coming to your home to drag you away in front of your family and neighbors.  This is the fundamental difference between the competitive free market and the monopolistic government.

A competitive free market in debt collecting allows companies to specialize in finding ways to collect debt from people who don’t pay, but have the ability to pay.  People who truly can’t pay usually get left alone, or there are minimal attempts to collect.  After all, it actually costs money to attempt to collect on bad debt.  Why would a company, trying to make money, spend their own money going after someone they will never collect from?

On the government side, they don’t have to worry about making a profit on you individually.  They have tax money and police.  So if you owe them for a $100 ticket, they can spend thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars in resources and police officer time to track you down, drag you in, lock you up, release you onto probation, and then continue to monitor you.  All the while they can tack on more fees and fines while you’re on probation.  Thus continuing the cycle of debt until you can somehow find a way to pay them off for good.

Solution

From a moral standpoint, no one should be locked in a cage because they owe a debt or fine.  At least not in today’s world.  I did previously write an article about private criminal justice, wherein violent criminals who actually do harm to people and property could be forced to pay restitution to their victims.  However, traffic fines, government fees, and consumer debt don’t fall into the violent criminal category.

You can accurately say that Korryn Gaines would be alive today if she just surrendered and complied.  However, she would also be alive today if America took the physical violence, police departments, and prisons out of the debt collecting business.

mike

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