The deck is stacked against those who have the least, and ongoing racism makes it even more difficult for people of color to avoid punitive systems that are intentionally structured to extract what, for poor people, can be usurious penalties. The nation collectively shrugs about such injustices because they are either invisible or we chalk up entanglements in any legal morass to personal behavior. But the truth is that, indirectly, we are all part of the fines-and-fees matrix that entraps poor people in debt or keeps them tethered to the criminal justice system. None of us should look away.
The exposé (Addicted to Fines: Small Towns Are Dangerously Dependent) raises two important issues that policymakers have the power to address. One, lack of revenue at the local level is linked to a broader challenge with state tax systems. Two, fines and fees often entrap lower-income people in a cycle of debt and, in some jurisdictions, ultimately criminalize poverty by casting unpaid fines as misdemeanor crimes.