The Thirty Minute Blogger

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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Living by Law's Spirit Rather Than by Law's Bludgeon


I have been listening to NPR's series Guilty and Charged (see: http://www.npr.org/2014/05/21/313118629/supreme-court-ruling-not-enough-to-prevent-debtors-prisons) and getting seriously annoyed. Roughly 30 years back, the United States declared there would be no more debtor's prisons, and that was good (although it should have happened much earlier). The catch 22 idiocy of putting someone away until they paid a debt, making it impossible to pay that debt, was loathsome. Sure, some folks made very poor choices and paid heavily for them. Others were poor folks caught up in a system in which they were beaten down in every way possible ... including debtor's prison.

Now our court system is putting away people who cannot pay some small fine and court fee, following the letter of modern law (although ignoring the law saying this can't happen), but not its spirit. Laws are to ensure justice, not to bludgeon the poor. Among the warehoused folks who could not pay small fines are war veterans now homeless (where is all the "support the troops" frenzy when actual troops come home physically and psychologically damaged needing help). One judge smugly stated that if he gave some form of leniency to one man, he would be making everyone else who obeyed and paid (those with money that is ... those who could afford to contest some fairly stupid charges and walk away without paying actually) a chump. It would undermine society. No, it would show that our court system is humane and working for all our citizens, rather than warehousing and derailing the poorest among us. It was infuriating to hear of an individual who had just gotten a new job, a job that would have allowed him to pay fines over time, and lost it after serving a sentence for nonpayment. It's wrong.

Jesus argued with the Pharisees over letter vs. spirit of law issues regularly. WE need to do better than the Pharisees of old, following spirit over letter, helping those who need help rather than beating them down. Finally, the last obscenity is charging the poor for their expenses in jail, which you know they can't pay if you put them there for nonpayment. This evil little catch 22 system is designed to oppress and ruin people whose daily lives are already difficult at best and miserable at worst. We must do better.

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