Thursday, May 28, 2015

JusticeWatch #2: Is This How We're Filling Our Jails?

What kind of person comes to your mind when you see this picture?

Now close your eyes and imagine this same man in ordinary attire at an ordinary social event. How does your impression change?

To my knowledge, this individual, in his late 50's, has never committed a crime that makes him a physical danger to the community. His hearing at the local Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court this Monday has to do with the fact that he owes $461.35 in very, very late child support payments. For this he has already served nine months of a year-long term. Yes, that's a twelve-month sentence.

He is not guiltless, of course. Fathers should pay all child support to the fullest extent possible, and in as timely a manner as possible. (Perhaps timely is the operative word here, in that the "child" in question is actually 32 years old!). But even without knowing anything about the circumstances of the case, I am altogether on the side of his paying up.

My concern is about judicial overkill at taxpayers expense. Couldn't the man have been made to go into some kind of mediation to work out a payment plan? Or couldn't we just garnish his wages, appropriate some of his property, or directly access his bank account? (The latter is what happens when people withhold some of their IRS payments, for example).

As it is, we taxpayers have to provide $26,000 worth of free annual room and board for someone who owes us less than $500. We also deprive him of any means of earning anything toward paying the $461.31, of course. Does this really make sense? Do we want our jails to become 18th century-style debtors prisons?

Sadly, civil contempt cases like the above are increasingly filling our local jail, along with multiple (and sometimes minor) probation and other so-called "technical violations". This means that large numbers of our neighbors are being held, not for committing new crimes, but for failure to properly fulfill the court's requirements for old ones. Probation can often become, as someone has said, a "very large sticky net".

Yet I totally agree that offenders should make every effort to comply with the terms of their sentences, and I know there are no easy answers here. But before we keep investing in more and more jail space, we local citizens, along with members of our Community Criminal Justice Board, should advocate for ways of better distinguishing between people who simply exasperate us and people who are a danger to us--and then respond proportionately.

Because when we simply keep locking up the same people over and over for the same things, and for ever longer periods of time, it may mean we are just running out of more creative and less costly alternatives.

And meanwhile it's costing us millions.

Here's a link to an earlier sad story on using jails as debtors prisons.
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