In his inaugural speech, newly-elected Philly District Attorney Larry Krasner said that he would do what he promised:
He reiterated those goals during his inaugural address, saying he wanted to begin “trading jails — and death row — for schools,” “trading jail cells occupied by people suffering from addiction for treatment and harm reduction,” and “trading division between police and the communities they serve for unity and reconciliation.”
Whether it works out the way he says will be seen, as it’s not so easy to trade jail cells for schools, but there remains an open question. What to do about the people who commit crimes. The big crimes are easier, murder and rape, but what about the small ones? Putting people in jail for petty offenses is ruinous. It destroys lives and achieves no legitimate sentencing objective. And it’s very expensive.
So what about imposing fines? For the poor, and most are poor and minority, there is no ability to pay, and when they fail to pay, the costs multiply (since there must be some penalty for failure to pay, and the penalty ends up being pay more when you couldn’t afford pay in the first place) until it goes from exceptionally hard to totally impossible.
Fines for drug offenses, in particular, can have long-term consequences for people who are unable to pay. In many jurisdictions, if a person cannot pay a court-imposed fine, probation is lengthened, warrants are issued and he or she can even be jailed for nonpayment. The burden is piled on, as interest, surcharges and collection fees are added to unpaid court costs.
So if not jail or fines, then what?
They can reform the justice system without adding the financial burden of fees and classes that defendants must pay for. They should instead search for ways to reduce criminal justice budgets by prioritizing preventive measures proved to decrease recidivism and improve public safety such as free drug and alcohol treatment programs, low-cost housing, restorative justice and job training.
The mystery here is who the “they” are. Neither courts nor prosecutors have anything to do with “prioritizing preventive measures.” They don’t build schools. They don’t fund drug treatment centers. They don’t build housing or train for jobs. They only deal with people after they’ve been arrested. So “they” must refer to other arms of government, since it can’t possibly refer to courts or prosecutors.
To start, lower courts should rely on day fines,where monetary sanctions are determined based on a person’s daily wage and the seriousness of the offense. The sanction is proportionate to a person’s ability to pay and the degree of harm inflicted.
To argue that fines are too high is fine, but the argument then depends on what fines actually are. To argue that lower fines, geared to a person’s ability to pay, is a tricky proposition. For people living hand to mouth, pretty much any fine is more than they can afford. Then there is the question of whether a fine of, say, $20 serves any purpose at all, beyond annoyance. Is there any deterrence? Does any fine serve a deterrence? Does any punishment really serve as a deterrence?
Punishments are problematic by definition. They aren’t supposed to be fun and easy, but a penalty. They should always be proportional to the crime and the individual being punished, but then the same people who call for easing up the burden on the poor are the first to demand life plus cancer for others.
Jurisdictions could reduce justice-related budgets by restructuring drug-sentencing laws to match public opinion and revise the use of mandatory minimum, long-term and life sentences.
Public opinion is that people they hate should get burned at the stake and people who make them sad should get a free meal and a puppy. It’s not just that the public is fickle, but ignorant. The public can’t be bothered to think hard enough to understand doctrines and principles, and instead hears each story and arrives at a sui generis solution. Whether it’s life or a walk has more to do with the adjectives chosen to tell the story than what a person has done.
Even though there is little doubt that the dedication of resources to preventing crime would go much further than building prison cells, people will still commit offenses, and most of them will be of the petty sort. Short jail sentences are no good. Fines are terrible. So what then?
We are enjoying a period of exceptionally low serious crime, despite what Attorney General Jeff Sessions says. Why this is so is entirely unclear, but that doesn’t change the statistics. And yet, low crime isn’t no crime, and fails to answer the question of what should be done when crime is committed.
One answer is to reduce the number of offenses, but that means people will behave in ways that annoy, and possibly risk harm, to others. Can people tolerate this? Can the same person who calls for decriminalization of drugs suffer their child being in a car crash with an uninsured reckless junkie? Not everybody wants drug treatment, you know. Despite our fantasy vision of a society filled with only good and loving people, there are some out there who aren’t going to behave with the degree of concern for your welfare that you wish they would.
This isn’t to dispute the problems with incarceration or fines. This is to note that all punishments are problematic, and maybe no punishment actually serves a purpose beyond retribution. But then, what do we do when people commit crimes?
Even Larry Krasner’s best wishes as Philly DA will eventually have to come to grips with the fact that people do bad things, and good people are hurt by them. So if the answer isn’t jail or fines, what is the answer?