I’ve started noticing a troubling trend in the news lately:
June 9, 2011 – Police are looking for a white male who has taken liquor and baby formula from Kroger stores in Birmingham and Troy.
June 22, 2011 – An employee of a grocery store in West Bloomfield reportedly watched a 67-year-old woman place items in her carry basket into her purse. When confronted at the exit, police said her purse contained body lotion, flaxseed oil and Omega-3 fish oil worth $90.
July 6, 2011 – A man allegedly tried to shoplift 10 cans of baby formula worth a total of $137.40 at a supermarket in West Bloomfield. When approached by security, he dropped the formula and ran out of the store. Police tracked down the suspect’s Ford Taurus, and he reportedly admitted to attempting to take the formula.
As we continue to slog through this Next Great Depression, this is what new crime looks like. I’m trying to imagine myself as a security guard arresting a 67-year-old woman for stealing vitamins, or a couple skirting away with diapers and baby formula. Would I just turn a blind eye? Would I pay for the stolen items myself? Or, would I turn them in?
It all conjures up nightmares of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, where Jean Valjean spending the bulk of his life in debtors’ prison over a loaf of bread.
Debtors’ prison. Now there’s a word I never expected to hear outside of fiction. Unfortunately, it’s all too real for some metro area residents who are landing in jail not for their desperate crimes, but for their inability to pay their fines. According to the ACLU of Michigan, people across the state are being jailed for crime of being poor.
Case in point: 19-year-old Kyle Dewitt went fishing for rock bass in May. He’d lost his job last year and hasn’t been able to find anything steady since. (I even have to wonder if his fishing trip wasn’t just an attempt to find some R & R, but a real mission to put food on the table.) When he hooked a small-mouth bass out of season, he got slapped with a ticket from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
OK, that’s fair. The rules are the rules. But when Dewitt couldn’t pay the ticket, a bench warrant was issued for his arrest. He turned himself in on July 25, 20ll, and an Ionia, Michigan district court judge ordered him to pay $215 by the end of the day or spend three days in jail. Dewitt offered to pay $100 the next day and the remainder the next month.
No go. The judge threw him in jail, even though Dewitt had never even pled guilty to the offense of catching the wrong fish in the wrong season. Seriously?? Lucky for Dewitt, the ACLU got him sprung pending a trial on the underlying offense.
In good times, fines may seem like an efficient way to slap the wrists of law-breakers. But in bad times, fines start to draw a bright line between the haves and the have nots. Should you really lose your freedom over not being able to pay traffic tickets or other misdemeanor fines?
“Long thought to be a relic of the 19th Century, debtors’ prisons are still alive and well in Michigan,” my good friend, Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan’s executive director, said in a press release. “Jailing our clients because they are poor is not only unconstitutional, it’s unconscionable and a shameful waste of resources. Our justice system should be a place where freedom has no price and equality prevails regardless of a defendant’s economic status.”
But a multi-state study by the ACLU entitled, "In for a Penny," showed that Michigan is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to jailing people who are too poor to pay fines.
"Michigan, a state hit harder than most by the recession, is trying to find operating funds in the most unlikely of places: the pockets of poor people who have been convicted of crimes," concluded the report. "Though the Michigan Constitution forbids debtors’ prisons and state laws explicitly prohibit the jailing of individuals who cannot pay court fines and fees because they are too poor, judges routinely threaten to jail and frequently do jail poor people who cannot pay."
This year, the ACLU has challenged five cases where an indigent citizen was told to "pay or stay," without any inquiry into the defendant's ability to pay immediately or over time. Thank goodness the ACLU is here to stand for people who cannot fend for themselves. I fear that Victor Hugo had it right when he wrote in Les Miserables, “There is always more misery among the lower classes than there is humanity in the higher.”
Guest blogger Desiree Cooper is a Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist and a legend in Detroit media. She blogs on race and politics in our fair city over at her Detroit Diary.