Perspectives: Rethinking how we pay for what we call ‘justice’

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OPINION — You’ve just noticed the red and blue lights strobing in your rearview mirror. You pull over with the sinking realization that, for whatever reason, you’re the latest winner of the roadside lottery.

What’s the first thought that goes through your mind?

Are you more concerned about the potential blemish on your record or about how you’re going to come up with the money to pay your fine?

For most of us, coming up with the money to pay the fine is by far the more realistic stress.

Anyone who has spent any time in a so-called “justice court” cannot help but recognize that these courts more closely resemble revenue collection stations than halls of justice. Anyone who has faced financial challenges in paying off the fine associated with their citation can attest that the system is primarily concerned with getting their money.

If they don’t have the money in hand to pay their fine, the system is designed to start playing hardball to get them to cough it up.

This creates two potential problems.

First of all, it can place individuals who are struggling financially into a destructive cycle where their already limited resources are being further depleted by the most demanding creditor of them all: the state.

Say a person is ticketed for his or her automobile registration being expired. With license plate readers becoming a standard fixture on police cars in even small towns, the system is actively searching for new “customers” every time that cruiser is driven down the street.

When a license plate is flagged and the offender – who may have been obeying all traffic laws – is pulled over, the true justification for the stop is that the state wants to get money out of them.

If the reason they’ve failed to renew their registration was that they were short on funds, how is saddling them with a stiff fine and possible impound charges going to improve their situation? It isn’t.

What started as one difficulty for this person has now been compounded into several new ones. In fact, without a vehicle, their chances of staying gainfully employed drop even further.

When they can’t pay their fines, the state takes more drastic steps up to and including putting them in jail. The fines intended to satisfy the demands of “justice” have not solved a problem, they’ve exacerbated existing ones.

It’s easy to sneer and say, “Don’t break the law” when the force of the state is being directed at someone who’s not you. But with innumerable laws, ordinances and statutes on the books already – and more being created each year – luck plays a bigger role in avoiding the state’s unwanted attention than strict obedience does.

Unfortunately, that’s a lesson each person must learn for himself or herself.

The second problem that arises from using fines to exact justice is that they can incentivize revenue collection on the part of the state. We joke about ticket quotas and speed traps with an exasperated shrug, but the temptation is high for many municipalities to use them anyway.

A friend who was a former Salt Lake City motorcycle officer has blown the whistle on the number of citations his squad was required to write each shift and the kind of fines that accompanied them. You don’t have to be an accountant to recognize the amount of potential revenues those citations were generating day after day.

Those fines can represent big money for municipalities who treat them as a kind of “slush fund on wheels” for the state. Assuming that justice is the authentic goal here, it seems highly immoral for cities to generate revenue by looking for reasons to ticket some of their most vulnerable citizens.

It’s time to consider alternatives to equating the administration of justice with handing money to the state.

One possible solution that could address both problems listed above is to allow offenders the option of performing community service instead of simply paying a fine. This isn’t providing them the chance to skate on their offense since paying off a $100 fine could take hours of community service to accomplish.

Instead of securing forgiveness simply by handing money to the state, which wasn’t the victim in the first place, offenders could provide meaningful service to nonprofit organizations in their communities.

Such an approach would provide genuine latitude that would allow an offender to pay his or her debt to society without placing them in greater financial hardship. It would also reduce the temptation to send forth officers each day with instructions to find reasons to write citations as a means of keeping the money flowing.

Correcting these practices and reducing the number of petty laws on the books would go a long ways towards restoring essential trust between the citizens and members of law enforcement.

Bryan Hyde is an opinion columnist specializing in current events viewed through the lens of common sense. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.

Email: bryanh@stgnews.com

Twitter: @youcancallmebry

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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11 Comments

  • DRT November 6, 2017 at 8:43 am

    If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime! It’s a trite old saying that is true. If you don’t want to pay fines, then get your head out of your butt while driving. If you aren’t mature enough to keep your vehicle legally licensed, then you sure aren’t mature enough to be driving.
    And as for the crap about not being able to afford to pay for your vehicle registration, then you’d better learn how to budget what meager money that you have. There are things in life that a person must either choose to pay for, or choose to do without. A vehicle is one of them.
    And before you accuse people who disagree with you, of doing so with a sneer, maybe you need to take a look at some of the garbage you write.
    Oh, one more thing. Anybody who confuses our legal system as a justice system, needs to grow up, and realize the way the world works.

  • Curtis November 6, 2017 at 10:25 am

    City / County / State governments could do all the things you suggest. You’ve already answered the question of why they won’t — money.

    Elected and appointed officials involved in law enforcement may wish for better relations with the citizenry but if it’s a choice between good relations and money they will choose the money. And why not? What is the citizenry going to do about it? Vote office holders out of office? In Utah?

    Get used to it; things are going to stay the way they are except perhaps for asset forfeiture which Trump and Sessions want to make even more onerous.

  • Who November 6, 2017 at 11:01 am

    Great article, Brian.
    I haven’t had this kind of problem for a lot of years but, know all too well what you are talking about. Real struggles in real life are commonplace for even the most decent folks. A real life solution, such as you suggest is direly needed.

    As for you drt, you’re either wealthy or work for the government.

  • DRT November 6, 2017 at 11:50 am

    I am neither a government employee, or wealthy. I have seen the time when I did not know where my next meal was coming from. But you know what? I HANDLED IT, and without welfare. I worked multiple jobs for several years.

  • ladybugavenger November 6, 2017 at 12:32 pm

    I got a ticket for expired registration in fullerton, Ca. (It wasn’t my first, either. But it was my last)

    I was broke.

    I asked the judge for community service. Not only did he say yes, he asked another struggling financially person if they wanted community service. She declined. And he let me do my community service at the fullerton courthouse. Washing Windows. Cleaning the building etc. But i wanted more. I wanted to wash a cop car. So they let me! I was like, yes!
    And before I knew it, my community service was over. Ha! That was an awesome experience that did not cost me a $500 fine and I’ve not driven a car without insurance or without registration since.

  • bikeandfish November 6, 2017 at 12:47 pm

    I agree that fines for such issues, like expired registration, is counter productive and often dangerously punitive. Offering up a non-financial penalty seems fair. And the destructive cycle of punitive government debt is finally getting attention from both sides, like the way bond fees affect the poor disproportionately.

    I also think policing as a form if revenue generation is also problematic and should be solved by actually financing our agencies properly through annual budgets.

    But policing the issues you highlight is still fair. I am not against scanning for expired tags as registration fees pays for alot of shared resources like roads, etc. I just think we need to remove financial incentives from policing. It’s important to reiterate that this is part of a long game of Bryan trying to rhetorically deligitimize the government’s role in policing in general to privatize the police force.

  • Sapphire November 6, 2017 at 1:15 pm

    I wish there was a way to ticket all the law enforcement officers who think they are above the law and speed, tailgate, and pull people over in dangerous places. I haven’t had a ticket in 40+ years. You have a choice whether to break the law or not. Consequences in life are important. It helps us decide whether to be decent, law-abiding citizens or selfish, self-centered, careless sluffs. We need more law and order and conscience-driven individuals, not irresponsible whiny babies looking for an out.

  • Kyle L. November 6, 2017 at 7:00 pm

    Brian, unfortunately our Justice Courts have had to take on the role of parents for people who have never had to learn the repercussions of breaking the rules. Everyone should have learned, by the time they get their lisence, that if you don’t obey the rules you will have to pay the consequences. If there was more making of men and women in the home there would be less complaining like little children in our society. Grow up and stop complaining about the consequences for your own actions. BTW Brian on most things we see eye to eye.

    • ladybugavenger November 8, 2017 at 9:53 am

      Your absolutely right Kyle! My parents taught me 3 things. 1. You can pay off an attorney to get a case thrown out. 2. How to make the best potato salad. 3. How to make the best meatloaf.

      Notice, not one of the three things was accountability for actions.

      In fact, their lack of that teaching taught me all kinds of bad behavior. Having money spoiled their teachings. I can only assume they thought 1. I was suppose to know what to do. And 2. You’ve got a roof over your head.

      And they were done.

      I spent a large portion of my life teaching my kids personal accountability and if you don’t want to do the time-dont do the crime.

      Parents please be involved with your children. Teach them right from wrong. Teach them personal accountability. How do you do that? Consequences. Follow through on your consequences. Do not bail them out, that includes jail. Do not bail them out of jail for a crime they are guilty of (You know they are guilty) or you are going to be partly responsible for their lack of and incapability to grow into productive citizens, and you will feel guilty for it.

      God bless y’all!

  • commonsense November 7, 2017 at 2:03 pm

    All this anti cop rhetoric is simply an excuse from lawbreakers who get caught.
    Obey the law and I promise no cop will cite you or harass you. It’s that simple.
    If you don’t want to contribute to city coffers, them don’t break the law. Cops are just doing their job.

  • ladybugavenger November 8, 2017 at 9:31 am

    Kyle and commonsense are absolutely right. If you obey laws then you shouldn’t have to worry about fines and jail and such. And there are consequences to actions. In a perfect world that holds up.

    The question I have to then is: is a ticket, warrant, failure to pay ticket and then jail an accurate consequence to a traffic violation? Community service was the best result and consequence to a traffic violation.

    Community service didn’t put me deeper into a financial hole that I was in and it helped me pay my debt to society while being able to afford to get it right for the future. Isn’t that justice?

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