Debtors' prisons may seem like relics from the Dickensian era, but the concept still thrives in countless cities. John Oliver’s latest rant on Last Week Tonight looks at municipal fines in towns across America, and reveals how far too many cities have turned minor infractions into revenue-generating taxes on the poor.
Oliver launched his takedown by reviewing the recent Department of Justice report showing Ferguson, Missouri, basically used fines – from speeding to jaywalking tickets – coupled with massive surcharges to make the city money. For the poor who can’t afford such exorbitant fines, as Oliver points out, “tickets can wreck your life,” leading to debt and even arrest.
For example, Oliver cites the case of Dekalb County, Alabama, where a speeding ticket is $255 – nearly a week’s worth of earnings for someone who makes minimum wage. “The only justifiable way you should use an entire week of your life due to speeding is if you hit 88 miles an hour and go back in time,” Oliver said.
All this nonsense isn’t just bad for poor citizens, it’s often bad for municipalities as well.
Examining the case of man who suffered both debt and incarcerations over stealing – wait for it – a single can of beer, Oliver took apart the cost to all involved: “A $2 can of beer, caused a $270 fine, which the city spent over $3,000 to try to enforce. But, you know what? It’s like they say: You gotta spend money to make money, to be able to jail people to lose money.”