David versus Goliath. Rooting for the underdog. Using jail to beat down the poor.
Wait. What was that last one? It is the growing phenomenon in America to use jail time and exorbitant fees to punish people for being poor.
The criminal justice system has always been significantly harder for the poor. As fatal shootings of black men by police officers mount it’s clear the system’s inequality starts at an even deeper level. It starts with the expectations police have when they patrol certain neighborhoods.
Police expect criminal behavior from black teens. Black teen in a white middle-class neighborhood? Must be casing the houses.
Black teen in a poor black neighborhood? He must be selling drugs.
Adrenaline must run high among the police who patrol the low income, predominantly minority neighborhoods, judging by their hair trigger reactions to the briefest encounters.
When was the last time we read a story of police killing a white teen when walking through the streets of a white, middle class neighborhood?
Then there is the inequity among who gets arrested and who does not. Data shows that drug use among teens of all races and socioeconomic status are similar. You would not guess that from the law enforcement responses.
Law enforcement and court fees are stretching the inequalities even farther. Remember the Miranda warning? During an arrest police are obligated to tell the person under arrest they have the right to a public defender if they cannot afford counsel on their own. This provided low income people with some hope of a fair trial. Now 43 states allow courts to charge the defendant for that public defender. All kinds of costs get passed on to defendants. Some states charge defendants for their arrest warrants. More than half of our states charge for room and board in jail. In Washington State people must pay a fee to have a jury.
So these fees add up whether or not the defendant is even found guilty. For people barely surviving financially this just adds to their burdens. Some courts offer payment plans, complete with interest. And if they miss a payment? They end up in jail where they accrue more fines and fees. Missing a few days of work can cost low wage workers their jobs. Now the cost of a speeding ticket can turn an average worker into an unemployed ex-offender. And Paul Ryan likes to tell the poor to “get a job.”
The fees are not about justice. They are about paying for expensive and overwhelmed courts and jails. Someone has to pay. But not to worry if you are the CEO of a large bank that deceived millions of homeowners. You are safe from ever paying a penny.
It seems like Goliath is now the hero.