A little editorial blurb in the local paper regarding the dedication of the new Yolo County Courthouse prompts this provocative title, and perhaps somewhat less provocative commentary.
The paper writes, “California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye turned out for the momentous occasion, which celebrated the completion of a beautiful new home for our local justice system.”
I have often defended the decision, made during the heart of the economic crisis when the state was teetering, to build a new courthouse because the old courthouse, while beautiful on the outside, was completely inadequate on the inside – lacking the proper space to house all of the necessary court functions that were collected into five separate buildings.
Moreover, one of the biggest indignities – not to mention safety and security risks – was the marching of chained inmates through the courthouse and across the street from and to a detention area. And lest you believe in public shaming, remember, these included pre-trial detainees who were mostly innocent until proven guilty and a number of them would be acquitted. It was a dehumanizing practice that will now stop.
I make the point, therefore, that there was a clear need for a new facility and not a clear funding mechanism. On the other hand, as we noted in several 2011 columns, we should not be whitewashing history either.
The paper, in applauding the new courthouse, mentions, “The $180 million-plus project was built with funds generated through legislation that authorized a statewide increase in court-related fees and fines.”
The reality is that, long before we knew about the city of Ferguson obtaining revenue for city operations on discriminatory fines for traffic and other minor offenses, we had SB 1407 signed into law by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2008. It provided about $5 billion for 41 new court projects, including in Yolo County.
SB 1407 increased a court security fee on every criminal conviction from traffic offenses, up by $20 to $60, and added $2 to every parking violation and $40 to traffic school.
Some may say that people who commit crimes should pay for the operations of the court as well as the funding of a new courthouse. There is a logic to that argument.
On the other hand, there is a grave inequity in the system. The people who end up paying these court fees are generally not the hardened criminals. Those who actually go to prison get their fees paid off through their serving time. On the other hand, those who are on probation and get a suspended sentence often get hammered with hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in fines and fees.
People who are trying to get a job or trying to get their lives back in order, trying to make a decent living and turn the corner, are instead being saddled with having to make monthly payments – sometimes up to $100 a month for a year or more, sometimes much longer. It is on their backs that this courthouse was built. That is Ferguson.
We are talking about people who are struggling to work, struggling to pay rent, who make minimum wage at best. Even on a monthly payment plan, it puts a huge burden on them and their ability to turn their lives around.
There have been stories about de facto debtors’ prisons, where people are actually requesting jail time in lieu of receiving a violation of probation for the failure to pay fines. That means that, in effect, the fines are self-defeating to the effort of truly receiving revenue.
In October 2007, the New York Times had an editorial, “Out of Prison and Deep in Debt.”
In it they wrote, “With the nation’s incarcerated population at 2.1 million and growing — and corrections costs topping $60 billion a year — states are rightly looking for ways to keep people from coming back to prison once they get out. Programs that help ex-offenders find jobs, housing, mental health care and drug treatment are part of the solution. States must also end the Dickensian practice of saddling ex-offenders with crushing debt that they can never hope to pay off and that drives many of them right back to prison.”
As the editorial points out, “A former inmate living at or even below the poverty level can be dunned by four or five departments at once — and can be required to surrender 100 percent of his or her earnings. People caught in this impossible predicament are less likely to seek regular employment, making them even more susceptible to criminal relapse.”
In fact, one study found that 12 percent of probation revocations were due not to the individual going back to a life of crime, but simply the failure to pay their debts. And many are thrown back into prison, which makes the system virtually self-defeating as a means to secure revenue.
The difficult part of all of this is that we really needed the new courthouse. The state did not have the funding to pay for all of the new courthouses and so they created a revenue stream to cover it.
However, I think as we “celebrate” the new courthouse, we should remember how it was financed and question the system that we have.
—David M. Greenwald reporting