Back in the day – the Jim Crow day in the South – segregationists used the courts to push black people into virtual slavery and keep them there.

The tactic was simple, and brutally effective: Impose “costs” and “fines” for minor crimes that clearly exceeded the ability of the cash-poor black people of the post-Civil War era. Then arrest and jail them for non-payment. Then “allow” them to work off their fines as field hands for – gee whiz – the same white plantation owners and manufacturers who had plunged the nation into civil war, lost that war, but canonized their bigotry as an idealistic (and untrue) “Lost Cause.”

We would not do that today, to blacks or other poor people – would we?

We are doing that right now.

The Philadelphia Inquirer chronicled the vicious cycle of poor Pennsylvanians being thrown again into jail, not for the crimes they had committed, but for not paying the fines and costs associated with the prison sentences they had already completed.

News Flash: Recently released ex-cons have difficulty finding and keeping jobs. The jobs they can get pay pittances. In addition to court costs, they often have private debts run up by their families while they were in jail.

Locking them up because they can’t pay their court-imposed costs in full makes no sense, and overcrowds our already overcrowded courts, jails and prisons.

What to do?

Make them pay, yes. But make the payments realistic, even symbolic.

The idea of complying with court costs and fines is to complete a sentence for violating the law. That instills responsibility.

But that idea can be met by regular payments – of almost any amount.

“Dollar a month?” In some cases, yes. It’s the compliance and the regularity that reinforce law-abiding behavior, not the dollar amount.

Repayment plans should be monthly, not weekly. Requiring weekly payments is simply convenient for the legal system, not rehabilitative for the ex-offenders. Day laborers, part-timers, even full-time workers often are not paid weekly.

It makes no sense to set someone “free” under circumstances that all but guarantee recidivism. And it costs us far too much money to keep all these people imprisoned.

— Denny Bonavita

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