Today, I started listening to a radio adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's Resurrection, which is one of those books you can spend a lifetime meaning to read. In this story, a prostitute named Maslova is wrongfully convicted of murder, and is sentenced to four years.
Okay, we're talking about four years in Siberia. Not a piece of cake. Still: That's a mere four years for a murder rap. In 1890s Russia, this sentence was considered harsh. (And keep in mind: Back then, it was easier for a former convict to get a job.)
In Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, the protagonist -- convinced that he is the new Napoleon -- uses an ax to murder an old woman. For that crime, he is sentenced to eight years in Siberia, where he finds redemption. His girlfriend and his sister go with him.
In this country, in the 21st century, we've given up on the unprofitable concept of redemption. There's too much money to be made by making working-class people pay endlessly for their crimes, even for the most minor infractions.
The Ferguson controversy focused our attention on the ongoing scandal of municipalities that fund day-to-day operations by gouging poor people guilty of speeding, jaywalking and other petty wrongs. This vile new system derives from the libertarian concept of privatizing government.
These fines that come from small infractions will grow rapidly when people can’t afford to pay them immediately, much less hire lawyers to handle the complicated procedures. So you have a large population with warrants and debts living in a city that functions as a modern debtors’ prison. This leads to people functioning as second-class citizens in their own communities.
How did we get here? As Sarah Stillman noted in a blockbuster New Yorker story, this is referred to as an “offender-funded” justice system, one that aims to “to shift the financial burden of probation directly onto probationers.” How? “Often, this means charging petty offenders—such as those with traffic debts—for a government service that was once provided for free.”
As Stillman notes, this process has grown alongside state-level efforts to privatize probation and other incarceration alternatives by replacing them with for-profit companies. (Missouri is one of many states that does this.) There are significant worries that this privatized probation industry has severe corruption and abuse problems. Crucially, their incentive is less rehabilitation or judging actual threats to the public, and more to keep people in a permanent debt peonage. The state, in turn, gets funded without having to raise any general taxes.
John Oliver's segment, embedded above, demonstrates the full extent of the problem.
Collection of nearly-unpayable debts has been turned over to private firms, which siphon off steep monthly fees. Those fees go to the company, not to the city. A fifty-buck traffic fine thus results in a working-class person forking over a large portion of his or her yearly earnings to a private firm.
It's bad enough when libraries and parks are funded by what amounts to a shakedown operation targeting those least able to pay. But what Oliver discusses (at around the 8:45 mark) is something much worse: The money goes to vampire capitalists who contribute nothing -- absolutely nothing -- to our society.
Taxpayers pay the police and the courts to force poor people to feed the vampire capitalists. The vampire capitalists grow fat, and the goods and services necessary to our society remain underfunded. Government actually spends more money to make the libertarian system function.
Libertarians keep telling us that private enterprise is always more efficient. Really? How the hell can anyone say that the old system was somehow less efficient than the legalized robbery inflicted by private probation companies?
Libertarian ideologues, who continually try to commie-bait us into compliance with their vampiric schemes, will try to convince you that the only alternative to private probation companies is socialism. With libertarians, it's always Dracula or Stalin: No third choice. I do not accept that false dichotomy. But if we are forced to accept it, then what alternative do we have? Come comrades, come rally, this last fight let us face...
In a 2010 report, In for a Penny: The Rise of America's New Debtors' Prisons, we described how in Georgia the profit motive gave private companies a clear financial interest in extending probation terms in order to collect additional fees and drove certain probation officers to engage in abuse and coercion to secure payments from poor probationers, including by threatening jail time and seeking court-issued arrest warrants for those who miss debt payments. Human Rights Watch's extensive investigation confirm that these problems have only worsened since 2010 as the private probation industry has grown. The result is a system that illegally discriminates against the poor and disproportionately affects racial and ethnic minorities, who are over-represented in the criminal justice system.
The evidence is clear: incarcerating poor people for failing to pay criminal justice debts they cannot afford is not only illegal, but senseless. Taxpayers are left footing the bill for jailing the poor. And both incarcerating and extending probation for those too poor to pay fines and fees erect major barriers to their successful reentry into society, imposing serious costs on probationers who seek to move on with their lives, and the public at large—all while private probation companies profit.
In other words, a struggling person who axed an old woman in Czarist Russia had an easier time of it than someone caught driving without a license in modern America.
Much of that "tough on crime" rhetoric we've heard from conservatives over the past half-century was bullshit. Vampire capitalists were simply seeking yet another way to make profits without making shoes or sandwiches or anything of value.
It's a scandal.
Libertarians will try to convince you to blame the dreaded gummint. No: Government is to blame only to the extent that our political system has been taken over by libertarianism.
Things were better in the old days, before libertarian ideology defined the boundaries of permissible debate. At one time, traffic tickets were reasonable, privatized probation agencies were unheard-of, and our libraries and parks were funded by the civilized method of steeply progressive taxation.
(I would argue that, in much of this country, a certain amount of speeding is subtly tolerated -- and thus encouraged -- in order to insure a constant revenue flow. Transplanted Californians, such as myself, are often surprised to learn that jaywalking is the norm on the east coast. Everyone does it, even though, technically, you can be fined for it. I once had a cop question me because I stood at the corner waiting for the light to change -- late at night, on a street with no traffic. He thought I was acting suspiciously.)
Let's bring this back to Tolstoy. If you want to glimpse the future that the libertarians have in store for us, check out Wikipedia's summary of the plot:
Nekhlyudov goes to visit her in prison, meets other prisoners, hears their stories, and slowly comes to realize that all around his charmed and golden aristocratic world, yet invisible to it, is a much larger world of oppression, misery and barbarism. Story after story he hears and even sees people chained without cause, beaten without cause, immured in dungeons for life without cause, and a twelve-year-old boy sleeping in a lake of human dung from an overflowing latrine because there is no other place on the prison floor, but clinging in a vain search for love to the leg of the man next to him, until the book achieves the bizarre intensity of a horrific fever dream.
It may shock you to learn that jaywalking is perfectly legal in most of the world, at least unless you intentionally block traffic. Pedestrians have right of way on most English roads.
As for lighter sentences in the past, the sentence for axe-murdering an ol woman at that time in Britain would have been death, as I suspect it would have been in America. Russians got Siberia because their government wasn't as merciful as most.
The goal of Libertarianism is essentially a corporatist police state with legalized drugs and prostitution offered as a sweetener. In the ideal Libertarian future drugs and prostitutes will be delivered to your door by Uber as part of it's high tech labor racketeering scheme.
posted by Gareth : 9:12 AM
So many people think that if you are just deferential and respectful of cops you won't have problems. Of course, ALL of these people are middle to upper middle class white folks like myself. This approach always worked for me, so for a long time I figured minorities just didn't know how to talk to cops. As it turns out, that is simply not true. Minorities and the poor are being targeted as revenue streams by modern police departments, whether consciously or not, because those are the people they've persecuted all along. Assuming guilt and creating it if it didn't actually exist. I've been in a few situations where, by all rights, I probably should have been arrested or at least gotten a stiff fine, and been let go with a warning. I know a couple African Americans who have been far more upstanding citizens than myself who get harassed on an almost daily basis for simply being out in public or driving a nice car. Yet people (white people, pretty much exclusively) think racism is a thing of the past in this country. If anything, it's getting worse all the time. I love how the politician in the article about the license suspensions say he's "had no complaints". Because poor people have so much time and inclination to write to their representatives. He probably has has copious complaints that his staffers have tossed in the trash so he can claim that no one has complained about his medieval legislation. How anyone with half a brain can fail to see the problem of privatized prisons, probation, and criminal justice is beyond my comprehension. Meanwhile, those on the right seem only concerned with one of the constitutional amendments while pretty much ignoring the rest (unless it effects them directly of course, then they shout bloody murder that Liberals are taking away their freedoms). It's enough to drive one to despair, and I'm not even the type of person that gets targeted (yet). I guess I have something called empathy, that those on the right seem to have somehow lost, despite being largely "Christians". Why have we allowed this to happen to our nation?
posted by Gus : 11:17 AM
thanks joseph.. good overview.. i like the comments from everyone as well.. - james
posted by Anonymous : 12:44 PM
Libertarians see life as a competitive sport, they admire winners and despise losers, and they don't mind rigging the game here and there to see that the right people (themselves and their friends) win.
posted by Anonymous : 12:44 PM
"In Scandinavian countries, traffic fines are based on income and ability to pay"
The parking fine a friend of mine got in Sweden wasn't. And it's routine for the police to add on a charge for their bank to process your payment.
In other words, the banks levy a tax on the fine.
(The banking system in Sweden is controlled by one family, the Wallenbergs. In fact, so is Sweden.)
I spoke to the Swedish police on behalf of my friend, and pointed out that demanding that someone pays the police an extra whack on top of a fine would in most countries be called what it is: extortion.
On behalf of my friend, I said the police couldn't have that extra whack and we weren't paying any amount more than the official amount of the fine. (In the US, I'd probably have ended up in hospital - or, if black, maybe the mortuary.)
The cop replied that we had to pay, because we had to obey the laws of Sweden. Spend any length of time in Sweden and you'll hear that phrase a lot: "you have to".
After hours of research, we found that there was a way to avoid paying the extra add-on, by going directly to the local authority's offices and paying in cash. So that's what we did. Very few people do that.
Scandinavia isn't the nicy-nicy place its advertisers present it as.