Lives Ruined for Petty Crimes: America's criminal justice system heaps debts on those who can't possibly pay.

AuthorMayeux, Sara
PositionBOOKS - Alexandra Natapoff's "Punishment Without Crime" - Book review

THE PLIGHT OF Ashley, chronicled in a recent class-action lawsuit filed in Tennessee, reads like a Book of Job as written by a petty bureaucrat. The 26-year-old single mother was working at Waffle House, making $2.13 an hour plus tips, when she was pulled over in a Nashville suburb. Cited for speeding and failure to carry proof of insurance, she was assessed $477.50 in fines and court costs. When she did not pay, the state suspended her license without notifying her.

In subsequent months, Ashley was pulled over again and fined $224.50, and then again and fined $244. She was finally, belatedly, informed that her license had been suspended this whole time and that she now owed $946. Finding herself in court facing the misdemeanor charge of driving on a suspended license (another $439.50), Ashley offered to make an $80 payment toward the total. She was informed that no partial amounts could be accepted and that her license could not be reinstated until she had paid her debts in full, plus an additional $388 in reinstatement fees.

Ashley lost the job at Waffle House. Without a valid driver's license, she had no reliable transportation to her shifts. If she continued driving on a suspended license, she might incur more fines. But if she couldn't get to work, she couldn't earn the money she needed to pay the debt.

Federal District Court Judge Aleta Trauger, who in July 2018 issued a preliminary ruling that Tennessee's inflexible approach to automatic license suspensions is likely unconstitutional, has observed that it's hard to understand the state's reasoning for giving indigent citizens no opportunity to have a hearing or negotiate a reasonable payment plan, unless "the purpose of such a scheme were to make an indigent driver's first traffic violation her entree into an endless cycle of greater and greater debt."

Reading this story in isolation, one might think that Ashley was uniquely unlucky or irresponsible. But Alexandra Natapoff's new book Punishment Without Crime makes it clear that the young mom's plight is relatively typical for Americans, especially poor Americans, who have the misfortune to interact with the edifices of government that enforce laws against misdemeanors, traffic violations, and other supposedly "petty" offenses.

Each year about 13 million people are charged with misdemeanors in the United States. They are disproportionately poor and disproportionately black or Latino. Because the state considers the offenses minor and...

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