On Feb. 8, civil rights attorneys sued the city of Ferguson, Mo ., over the practice of jailing people for failure to pay fines for traffic tickets and other minor, non-criminal offenses.
And to this I say: It’s about time.
Growing up with an attorney father — a “yellow dog Democrat” one at that — who often took on poor clients in return for yard work and other non-cash payments, I heard early and often about the unfair — and illegal — practice of debtors’ prison. A poor person could not be jailed for failure to pay a fine, my father told me. I trusted his words were true.
So imagine my surprise when at the age of 18, I was arrested for unpaid traffic fines.
At that time I was a stay-at-home mom, trapped in a too-early marriage I would one day leave. My son was probably 6 months old. When the knock came at my door and I saw a police officer standing outside, I didn’t hesitate to answer.
The officer confirmed my identity and told me I was under arrest for failure to pay traffic tickets I had received for driving an unregistered vehicle.
I know that I should have paid the registration. Once ticketed, I know I should have worked out a payment plan. I know I should have taken responsibility for my illegal actions.
But I was young, inexperienced with the system, and very, very poor. Too poor to keep up with even the most modest of payment plans.
I was lucky: the officer was kind. He allowed me to change my clothes before taking me to jail — like most stay-at-home moms with infants, I was still in my pajamas (no yoga pants in those days). He also wouldn’t handcuff me even though it was standard protocol. Most importantly, he let me call my mother so she could pick up my son before I got hauled off to jail.
I remember standing in the driveway, transferring the car seat from my (as of yet unregistered) car to hers under the watchful eye of this kind officer. I remember being gone only a handful of hours, remember sitting in a small white room with a lone chair and a phone in it. I remember detailing my identifying marks to the bored desk officer behind the glass. I remember how grateful I was to have a mom willing to pay my fine for me. I walked away scot-free; no record of the arrest was made. Instead, I got a wink and a nod and an admonishment to give my mom a heartfelt thank you (which I did).
Years later I became a juvenile attorney representing abused and neglected children in court, either fighting to get them back home with their parents or, as more often was the case, fighting to keep them in the county’s protective care. As part of my job, I came to find that in some — many, perhaps even most — circumstances of arrest, when a parent doesn’t have anyone immediately available to care for his or her child, CPS is called. And once CPS is called, families enter into an almost unshakable system that can often find reason to stay in a family’s life much longer than the situation warrants.
My son, the one who was 6 months old at the time and who, but for this kind officer, may have had a needless CPS case started for a mere three-hour parental absence when grandma was just a call away, is now a dean’s list college sophomore.
But for one kind officer, life could have been so different.
Then again, I’m white. I’m a woman. At the time I was young and maybe even attractive. My dad was an attorney in town and my mom had the ability to pay my fine on the spot.
But what if? What if I were black? Or brown? What if I were a young man wearing a hoodie instead of a young mom wearing pajamas? What if my family didn’t have the means to either show up for my son or write a big check on my behalf?
The consequences could have been dire. Jail time. A quick call to CPS that could have taken months to undo. A record that could have kept me from finding a job. From college. From law school and a career spent helping abused children and indigent parents.
Towns all over the United States engage in the practice of arresting those who fail to pay fines. These folks are put in jail and given a permanent record for no reason other than that they are poor.
Yes, all people should follow the law. Yes, once ticketed one can and should take the initiative of creating a payment plan. But there are reasons, legitimate reasons, that keep this from happening: lack of money for registration in the first place. Lack of knowledge of how to navigate the system. Perhaps undocumented status or language barriers. The reasons (not excuses) are many.
My dad passed away more than a decade ago. I wish he were here today to talk to about this much-needed constitutional challenge. I wish he were here to ask me, as he so often did: justice or mercy, Jamie? Which one will you chose?
I know what my answer was then, and I know what my answer is now. What will the answer be in Ferguson? What will your answer be? I hope for the sake of indigent persons nationwide that the answer will be "both."
Jamie Calloway-Hanauer is a freelance writer and social justice activist. You can follow her on Twitter @jamiehanauer, or connect with her at her blog, jamiecallowayhanauer.com.
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