Over the last few years, there has been a lot of talk about how the U.S. justice system is unfair to poor people, often people of color.
There are many rightfully complaining that those with little money cannot afford decent legal representation, which often leads to them facing stiff sentences for relatively minor crimes.
In Oregon, California, Washington and many other states, voters took some of that away be legalizing marijuana, and in Oregon, decriminalizing almost all drugs.
I have always said there are way too many people serving lengthy prison sentences for drug crimes that hurt no one but themselves.
Over the last few years, much of the conversation has been led by left-leaning experts who argue that too many young men and women are growing up in prison for relatively minor crimes. I have heard a lot of discussion, but not a lot of answers as to how to fix the problem.
Although I consider myself fairly conservative, I have agreed with many of the ideas regarding our justice system. Too many people suffer life-impacting sentences for crimes that, while illegal, hurt no one but themselves. I have long felt government should not be in the businesses of forcing individuals to make wise decisions. While I choose not to drink or do drugs, that is my choice. Penalizing others who live differently is not something I want to do.
I only brought up the political leanings of many involved in the discussion because I now cover two left-leaning states – Oregon and California. And one thing I have noticed over the last few months is how these two states punish lawbreakers in a way I’m not used to. They hit the pocketbook and often hit it hard.
Last week, while typing in the criminal convictions report for Crescent City, Calif., I noticed the financial penalties often are greater than anything else. For a DUI, a person often gets a couple days in jail, a year probation and fines close to or more than $2,000. In some cases, they added another traffic penalty with the DUI and pushed the fines over $4,000.
I get it in some ways. States like California and Oregon need those fines to help pay their massive government bills. But in my opinion, fining minor lawbreakers is not the way to do it.
As someone who has paid close attention to the judicial system for years, large fines start a slippery slope that often leads to chaos.
Many of the people facing the huge fines sign plea agreements eagerly because it leads to little or no immediate jail time. But, too often, when big fines are attached, it just delays the inevitable.
In today’s world, when rent and other expenses are sky high, few people have thousands of dollars to pay court fees. So, they agree to payment plans to remain free. That sounds great until your car breaks down and you miss a payment or your child gets sick and you can’t work and you miss another.
You do that, and all of a sudden that probation you agreed to means there’s a warrant our for your arrest. And to stay out of jail, you are likely to agree to an extended probation and a larger fine.
The process repeats over and over and over. And the people who suffer the most – the poor, minorities, people of color. People with money don’t find themselves in this situation. That’s simply a fact.
In Texas, known for its conservative leadership, fines are known to be small. ’ve seen people lead out on Class A misdemeanors, just a step below a felony, and get a $60 fine and a year probation. That might not be enough of a deterrent.
But getting slapped with a $4,000 fine with a year to pay it off is more than many can do. Think about it, when you were 22 could you have paid $300-plus a month for court fees? Many can’t, and they get stuck in a cycle of punishment that never seems to end.
This element in the judicial system is one that unfairly targets the poor and minorities. In states that talk constantly about equity and fairness, maybe it’s time to look at the judicial system and these massive fines that lock down people for years.