On Monday, I got to hear an elderly gentleman get sentenced for a first-time super extreme DUI (one where his blood alcohol concentration was over 0.20%) as I waited for the court to call my client’s case. He was so nervous he was shaking, and at one point, he begged the judge to not send him to jail. She told him something about how she would have to send her own brother for jail for that charge because the legislature set a mandatory minimum sentence. She also added a little comment about seeing people with a third of his BAC being involved in fatal collisions. How that could be the case seeing how she’s a misdemeanor court judge and doesn’t seem the type to go to court for friends charged with vehicular homicide, I’m not sure. But that really isn’t the point of this post.
During sentencing, the man pleaded with her to waive jail costs because he had no job and lived off of a few meager monthly social security checks. The judge first responded by telling him his lack of employment meant he would be ineligible for work release from jail because he had no job. He would have to do his entire sentence in jail without any release. The judge then told him he would also not be able to do home detention for any part of the sentence because that involved paying a private company quite a bit of money. Finally, the judge interrogated him about his financial situation and his disabilities before agreeing to waive jail costs. The poor guy’s attempts at saving some money resulted in him doing a flat-time jail sentence with absolutely no release and no home detention. His bill from the court alone was still over $3,000.00 by the time he left.
My client’s experience was better in some ways but worse in others. He’d been without air conditioning for over a year because he couldn’t afford it and his car needed repairs, but he had a pretty good job. The judge reduced his jail fees instead of waiving them altogether, but she gave him work release and home detention. The fact he was gainfully employed meant he would only spend about half of his jail sentence in jail thanks to work release, and the income he got from his job enabled him to do some of his time in the comfort of his own home. He was more or less able to buy his way out of jail, and in the context of a DUI case that was going to cost him thousands regardless, a few hundred extra for his freedom seems almost like a bargain. Whether it’s right that the system would work like that is a different story altogether.
People typically won’t believe that courts are only out for money until they have to deal with one. Defense attorneys used to refer to Gilbert as a debtor’s prison because of certain judges’ love of throwing people in jail for not paying what they owed. The court also only offered payment plans to people who could prove they’d been denied a loan for the amount they owed. They may still do those things. Many courts behave pretty much exactly as you’d expect a loan shark with contempt power to behave. In Phoenix Municipal Court, they won’t even forgive fines and fees for people doing decades in prison. I have been trying for years to get them to do something, even if it just means they stop heaping on more interest and fees, for a client who is doing ten years and went away with outstanding photo radar tickets. By the time he gets out of prison, he’s probably going to have a balance due that looks like a small mortgage. The only help the court was willing to offer was the gracious suggestion that I pay the balance in full for him.
Doing volunteer work at a local homeless shelter, I encounter at least one person every time I go who has outstanding fines from Mesa City Court trespass charges. They were kicked out of their houses because they had domestic violence charges or the neighborhood turned out no good for sex offenders or they were just too poor to scrape together rent. They couldn’t get together enough money to put down a deposit on an apartment or a down payment on a house. Their credit sucked because they had judgments on their credit reports, and no one would hire them because of their history. If I dropped you off on a street corner in Mesa with a criminal record, no job, and no credit, where would you go? You’d wander the streets until your legs couldn’t take it any more, and then you’d find a secluded spot to rest your head. At your lowest point, the police would hassle you and cite you, and the court would fine the living shit out of you. Prosecutors never seek jail for this stuff, not because they wouldn’t love to cage you, but because they don’t want you to have a lawyer. You’d plead because the system is scary and unfair, and you’d leave just as screwed as when you started but with a few hundred dollars more in public judgments and an extra criminal conviction on your record.
It’s all about money. Whenever I ask courts to order community service instead of fees and fines, judges look at me like I’m crazy. They ignore the fact the crime never would’ve happened in the first place if the defendant had some way of making ends meet. They only make the defendant’s situation worse, as the sadistic desire to punish that drives the justice system at every level in Arizona despises the very idea of helping the damned. In fact, I’ve found that any organization or government entity that purports to help and accordingly feels sufficiently self-righteous to ignore individual human beings’ needs is going to be hostile to any sort of self-help or person-to-person charity outside of its scope of business.
A few Thanksgivings ago, my wife and I searched for days to find a place to volunteer our time after finding ourselves without plans. Everyone wanted our money, but no one wanted our help. They wanted to use our donations to fund a bulky infrastructure that gave its well-meaning employees steady-but-low-paying jobs and decent benefits so they could disburse the leftovers to people in need as they saw fit. Even when it’s two lawyers willing to offer legal services or hard labor or pretty much anything else within reason, the end result is complete silence. We are a society that donates a lot to have a bunch of rich people race or sing or do who-knows-what for a cure so we can in the end give a lot less to the thing we’re doing it for in the first place. We are a society that throws dollars at a bunch of middle class do-gooders hoping to comfortably help their pet projects while we all but spit in the cups of homeless men and women begging us for cents. The government is the violent and corrupt but natural extension of our sick and twisted approach to helping.
In the end, it’s the money the government wants. They really don’t care about making things better. Not one bit. If every person I’ve spoken to over the years was allowed to clean up litter to pay off their debt to the courts, Arizona would be the cleanest place in the world. If they could do repaint building or put up solar panels or drive drunk drivers home to keep them off the streets or who knows what else, we’d have a society that would make our current mess look like the middle ages.
Nobody cares about that, unfortunately. We don’t want it to be better for everyone. We want it to suck for the people we catch. The government doesn’t want things to be right because there wouldn’t be anything left for them to fix if that happened.
All they want is your money, and whether you like it or not, you’re going to have to pay up sooner or later.
Filed under: Courts, Government Rants · Tags: 0.20, assessment, BAC, DUI, DWI, fees, fines, furlough, government, home detention, homeless, jail, prison, probation, punishment, sentence, super extreme, trespass, work release