Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Universal Problem--how our current system hurts the poor:

In early September wrote "How municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo., profit from poverty," examining the downward cycle in which many poor people are caught: not knowing the law well enough to comply with court procedures once they have miss-stepped, finding common fines too crippling to dig out from under, etc. The opening 'case study' follows a single mother of four, working several jobs while trying to finish her education, who was hit in a fender-bender by another driver. Filing the accident report led to her arrest for outstanding warrants for minor driving infractions which led to several weeks in jail waiting to appear in traffic court because she couldn't make her third bail. The difficulty with the article is that Balko frames it as a St. Louis problem. The fact that there are so many municipalities in the St. Louis metro area certainly exacerbates the problem, but this is by no means a problem exclusive to St. Louis. The fact is that Balko has hit on a problem with our current system which particularly injures the poor, regardless of what county they live in.



Scripture is very concerned with the welfare of the poor. In giving the law to the people of Israel, God established through Moses a weekly day of rest for the slave and the alien (Exodus 23:10-12), a year to cancel all debts and free all slaves and provide for their future productivity (Deut. 15:1-18), and provision for the poor in areas of debt, tithing, and daily maintenance, while preserving their dignity (Lev. 25:35-38, Deut. 14:28-29, Lev. 19:9-10); as a result of all this God intended that "there should be no poor among you" (Deut. 15:4). It was because of Israel's failure to act in response to this that the nation was led into captivity to Babylon (Isaiah 1:16-17) [thanks to Steve Corbet and Brian Fikkert for these insights from When Helping Hurts]. God cares about the poor and demands of nations that their plight is addressed, not made worse.

I have two suggestions to address the concerns Balko raises here: (1) that we tie the current cost of penal fines to the median income for the country (or even for the government entity issuing the fine), and adjust such fines to the offender's income for the previous tax year. It makes no sense that Warren Buffet and Nicole Bolden (the opening 'case study' in Balko's article) should pay the same fee for speeding: while the offense is equally serious, for Buffet the fine is a joke; for Bolden it could be this month's water or electric bill.
(2) The entity issuing the fine should not receive the money from the fine. This would remove the incentives which force small, struggling municipalities from pressuring their police forces into focusing on traffic enforcement when the police themselves may see more important problems to address or have better strategies for dealing with problems they encounter from actually being out in the community. This is a basic economic reality: if your bosses are requiring a certain quota for their funding you have to meet the quota regardless of how well it helps you do your actual job. By separating punishing offenders from funding government, citizens and government will find the incentives which have produced some of the current problem dissipate. Unnecessary micro-municipalities will be absorbed into others in the case of St. Louis's metro area and law-enforcement personnel will be freed from the tyranny of funding the municipality to focus on fulfilling their job descriptions: which involves the original point of providing justice for the poor.
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