Criminalizing Poverty For Profit: Local Government's New Debtors Prisons   (October 20, 2009)

Local government is desperate for new funding but doesn't dare tap the wealthy. So they're busily criminalizing poverty and filling new Debtor's prisons.

Correspondent Jeff Ray sent in this story Milking the Poor: One Family's Fall Into Homelessness (The Atlantic) which is representative of the trend in local government to criminalize poverty for its own enrichment.

Here's the deal. Local government has grown fat in a decade of gargantuan capital gains and real rising real estate taxes. Employees pulling down over $100,000 each are legion, as are public retirees pulling down over $100,000 a year in pension payments. Local government has added 15% more employees even as population grew by a meager 3%. (The numbers may vary in your area but the percentages won't.)

Now the seven fat years are over and local government is not liking the seven lean years. Now that housing has plummeted, so have the tax rolls; capital gains have dried up and even sales tax revenues are crashing. Despite the usual bleatings of hope, the chances of tax revenues recovering are slightly lower than the proverbial snowball's chance of remaining frozen in Heck.

Foreclosures: 'Worst three months of all time' Despite signs of broader economic recovery, number of foreclosure filings hit a record high in the third quarter - a sign the plague is still spreading.

Meanwhile, a perfect storm is gutting public pension funds. More Pain for State's Taxpayers, Cities: CALPERS losses $50B. In order for the State amd local governments of California to meet their future pension obligations (paid by CALPERS, the massive public pension fund), they need to kick in hundreds of millions of dollars more in coming years, even as their revenues are falling.

The conclusion that the medical and pension benefits which were promised in the fat years are no longer payable is anathema to public unions and managerial staff alike, and so the machinery of local government has geared up to stripmine the citizens like a giant trawler stripmines the sea: parking tickets have been jacked up to $60 or more, traffic violations are in the hundreds of dollars, speed traps abound, and as noted in the top story, fees for "crimes" like driving without auto insurance now cost more than the insurance itself.

And gosh forbid if you don't pay on time--the penalties double the original fine and then go up from there.

Is there anything more pernicious, malicious and immoral that this criminalization of poverty to engorge the coffers of local government? If John Q. Citizen defaults on his credit card, he might have to endure harrassing phone calls from bill collectors. But worst case, he can unplug his phone or cancel that number and get another phone number. Fortunately, the bank cannot have him imprisoned (yet).

But local government isn't quite as kind and gentle as the bankers. Mess with their revenues (i.e. don't pay the hefty fines they levy) and they'll haul your carcass into court and then into jail (can't make bail? Too bad. You're a full-blown criminal now.)

Exactly what is the difference between racking up $1,000 in fines off an innocuous violation and being imprisoned for lack of payment and a 19th century-era Debtors prison?

Isn't this part of the reason why the Parisian mobs tore down the Bastille?

Does this make any sense at all, arresting people who can't pay their nonsensically stupendous fines and penalties just so government employees don't have to take a cut in pay and benefits? When did a ticket go from $50 to $300 and up? And why? Does anyone think the cost leaped up "for the public good"?

Is getting nailed for a ticket you can't pay really a deterrent to being too poor to keep your auto insurance current?

Let's follow this all the way to the end. Now that John Q. Citizen is in jail because he was nabbed driving without insurance and a big fat fine is outstanding, aren't the taxpayers throwing away $50,000 to $100,000 a year to process his tortured journey through the Kafkaesque court and jail system with those other "dangerous criminals"?

Hey, the war-on-drugs/prison/gulag pays very well, thank you, and filling cells with Mr. Citizen is just grist for the mill.

Now when Mr. Citizen is released (darn it, we can't get blood from a turnip!), his car has been impounded and he owes the towing yard $1,000 which he doesn't have. So he no longer has a car to get to work, or even drive to an interview.

OK, so maybe he was irresponsible in not setting aside enough money for the car insurance. Is that now a criminal offense? Is this the best use of police officers, judges, jails and the "justice" system? Is anyone being deterred by the ruthless criminalization of poverty? Please make the case for that, local politicos and bureaucrats.

Great work, local government. You've not only stolen the citizen's last few dollars, you've also deprived him of his employment opportunities and livelihood.

Here's a thought: you need more tax revenue? Then make the case to the citizens at the ballot box to pay more. Prove you're not squandering the tax money you're already getting by the boatload. Show us how you're going to spend our money as carefully as we do.

If you really want to stripmine somebody's cash assets, why not start with your local Wal-Mart? I can guarantee you they won't leave town when you enact a new ordinance taxing all retail establishments of 50,000 square feet or more.

Or impose a tax on all homes worth more than triple the median price in your zip code. You want to nail somebody with higher taxes? Then go after the top 5% who still have assets. Don't trawl the streets for the folks who can least afford your rapacious imposition of authority.

Bankers aren't the only rapacious greedheads in this nation. Look no farther than city hall, the county building and the State capitol. Just hope it isn't you who runs low on cash and gets nailed with that $395 ticket which soon morphs into $695 and an arrest warrant.

You can't blame local government avarice on Washington or the bankers. All this greed is homegrown, local and entirely unnecessary. As it stands now, 10% or maybe even 20% of the citizenry will soon have outstanding arrest warrants for what amounts to local government Debtors Prison.

Come November 2010, we can only pray that the citizenry "takes care of business" at the ballot box, and all the incumbent politicos who approved this evil criminalization of poverty get tossed out en masse, regardless of party affiliation.

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