Opinion | Morgan Liddick: Rule-breakers deserve punishment
On your right
Brianna Morgan has a problem. The single mom and her three children scrape by on disability payments. She can’t hold a job because she can’t drive — not because of her disability but because she lost her license three years ago and hasn’t regained it. She can’t pay the $400 in fines, court costs and fees stemming from previous traffic citations and a disorderly conduct charge. She regards this as a gross violation of her human rights.
Some people agree, including the Legal Aid Justice Center, a nonprofit busily challenging this practice with federal lawsuits. Working with the Southern Poverty Law Center and various legal aid groups around the country, they produced a report in 2017 on the status of suspension-for-nonpayment in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, with emphasis on the 43 states that currently engage in this practice, Colorado among them.
As expected, the authors find the current systems to be “unfair” and “unjust” because as they see it, these laws punish the poor for being poor. As expected, they misstate the problem. The people in question are punished for failure to discharge a cost imposed by a court for breaking the law. The assignment of this debt is therefore neither capricious nor arbitrary, neither unfair nor unjust. In calling for special consideration for poor lawbreakers, their advocates are actually calling for unequal treatment based on income — a precarious position to take in a country of “laws, not men.”
The problem is that people, being people, tend to ignore rules unless they are compelled to conform to them. So, faced with lawbreaking a court may impose all the fines it wishes; absent compulsion the fines will not be paid and the intended punishment becomes a hollow and easily dismissed threat. This is the world toward which the Legal Aid Justice Center and its fellows are striving — a world without consequences for bad acts.
We’ve been heading this direction for a while. The habit of excusing misbehavior starts early now: disruptions in classrooms are met not with sanctions, but pleas for “understanding” and excuses. It was caused by learning difficulties. By “chaotic family life.” By hunger. By ADHD. What it can never be is the fault of the disruptive child. Later delinquencies are blamed on “stress” or “bullying” or other members of modern society’s demonology. When the miscreant, well-trained by experience to think that he or she will be faulted for nothing, graduates to more gruesome crimes, what then? Recent events show there is still a phalanx of justifiers and defenders ready to throw the cloak of mental illness or its sister maladies over the actions.
Yes, if someone goes hunting fellow humans with a shotgun in a local newspaper office, he or she is quite clearly not right in the head. But that should not stand in the way of society’s making absolutely certain that person never has the opportunity to do it again. Ever.
But we speak here of lesser crimes and the question is, what is an appropriate sanction? We clearly have little desire to imitate those Muslim countries where corporal punishments are meted out — immediate, cheap and an effective deterrent to crime in stable societies — so we are left with service, fines or incarceration. Each has its advantages and its drawbacks. Service and incarceration share the difficulties of expense: they require a bureaucracy to manage their operations and, in the case of incarceration, the expense of room and board as well. Which leaves fines for petty crimes — and brings us back to the problem of those who do not pay.
Rather than replacing the fine with a severe scolding — the apparent position of the LAJC and the SPLC, for poor people – why not establish mandatory minimum payments and issue a restricted license for those whose payments remain current? The minimum could be set through assets-based calculation and could be changed as circumstances warrant. The license issued could be valid for a fixed set of purposes: work, child care, health and welfare – but not for visiting aunt Leela in Minneapolis. While this would require more bureaucrats, the costs could be at least partially offset by increasing the fines administered, which would be entirely fair and just. Those who transgress should bear the penalty, as well as the cost of assuring they could drive when necessary, if they say they must do so. It is they, not anyone else, who is responsible for their predicament and resultant fines. If they re-offend or fail to pay, their license could be revoked. One last, best chance.
I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for LAJC to accept such a solution. Its members aren’t really interested in serving the interests of the law-abiding society which makes them possible.
Call it irony.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily News.
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