Jail Fees: Adding Insult to Injury

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While traveling by bus earlier this week, I made the acquaintance of a fellow passenger who had just been released from jail in Alachua County, Florida, after spending a year fighting charges he was eventually acquitted of. Interesting guy with an interesting story, and one that puts a burr under my fur about how the law treats those accused of crimes.

As you read this, keep in mind once again that he was acquitted — found “not guilty” of any crime. He was kept in jail without bail through the lengthy trial process because he was from out of state and considered a flight risk.

When he was booked into the jail, he was assessed a $50 fee for the processing.

While he remained in jail, he was assessed a fee of $4 per day for his room and board (which, he told me, consisted of a hot breakfast, then bologna sandwiches for lunch and dinner every day).

There may have been other fees, too, but we’re already looking at $1,500 he was required to pay just to remain in a place he would cheerfully have walked right out of if allowed.

When family and friends sent him money for “commissary” (the in-jail store where inmates can buy candy and such to supplement the jail diet), the fees were deducted from it before he got any of the money. And, he said, if an inmate is released “owing” the jail money, he’s issued a letter detailing a payment plan, with a warning that the matter will be referred to a collection agency if the money isn’t forthcoming.

There’s a term for that kind of scheme, but I can’t use it in a family-oriented column. It refers to uncastrated male cattle and what they leave on the ground behind them.

This is the third time I’m mentioning that he was acquitted. Do you suppose the sheriff’s office cut him a refund check for all those fees? Nope.

And  if he had been convicted? So what?

The theory behind the American criminal justice system is that it works on behalf of all of us innocent folks out here enjoying our freedom. I have my doubts about that theory, but if it’s true, shouldn’t “we” pick up the check for keeping people — even guilty people — in jail if that’s where “we” want them kept? This evil “fee” system needs to go.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.


Election 2016: Rage Against the Voting Machines

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It’s not news to anyone that American elections have become long, costly, complicated, time-consuming affairs. Each campaign begins the day after the previous election, swamping news cycles and distorting public dialog for two to four years.

Of all the activities involved in the ongoing drama of politics, one should be quite simple: The final, affirmative act of casting a vote. Instead, voting has become more and more difficult, more and more complicated, and more and more subject to counting error over the years.

Sarah Breitenbach of the Pew Charitable Trust’s Stateline project reports on a developing backlash against the problems of fragile high-tech voting systems. After Florida’s “hanging chad” debacle in 2000, most states and cities moved to new, theoretically easier to use, but technologically more complex, voting machines. Those machines came with their own problems, including very real fears that election results could be (and perhaps were) hacked and manipulated.

More than a decade later, after years of acrimonious debate, close elections turning on questionable vote counts, and concerns about close relationships between politicians and  voting machine manufacturers, this generation of machines is on its last legs and the search is on for replacements.

In that search, election authorities seem to largely be looking to the past. “Optical mark recognition” technology — the hand-marked “fill in the circle next to your choice” ballot familiar to every public school student since the 1960s — turns out to still be cheaper, more reliable, easier for voters to figure out, and hopefully more secure and trustworthy.

In truth, voting could be made simpler still. Many countries, by no means all of them lagging the US tech-wise, still use their eyes to scan and their hands to count plain old-fashioned paper ballots. For that matter, it still happens that way in parts of the US, as everyone who closely watched coverage of the Iowa caucuses on February 1 saw on their television screens.

In 1864, America conducted a presidential election in the midst of civil war. The polling places were crowded with soldiers furloughed so they could vote. The ballots weren’t just hand-marked and hand-counted, but weren’t even standardized or printed by the government . Voters could get ballots from their candidates or parties of choice, or hand-write their own. The results were reported by telegraph. And yet the results were known by midnight on Election Day.

Voting could, and should, be that simple again.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.


Marriage Freedom: Yes, Polygamy is Next

Turn of the century photograph of the entire f...
Turn of the century photograph of the entire family of Joseph F. Smith, a known polygamist. This picture depicts members of his family, including his sons and daughters, as well as their spouses and children. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Back in the bad old days before the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, many opponents of same-sex marriage warned us that if it became legal, polygamy would be next. They were — some no doubt for the the first time in their lives — right. Polygamy is, as it should be, next.

In 2013, a federal judge struck down part of Utah’s ban on marriages of more than two in a case involving the Brown family from the reality TV show “Sister Wives.” The ruling didn’t require the state to issue “marriage licenses” to more than two partners, but it did invalidate the rule against cohabitation of those partners.

On March 2, Utah’s House of Representatives attempted to resuscitate the ban, passing a bill that, if it makes it through the Senate and past the governor’s desk and over the inevitable court challenge hurdles, would punish cohabiting parties of more than two who SAY they are married.

Yes, you read that right. No, it’s never going to pass constitutional muster.

If you get in a car and take off down the road without a driver’s license, you’re still driving. If you get married without a marriage license, you’re still married. A law forbidding you to mention that you’re driving, or that you’re married, belongs on the list of dumbest ideas ever.

What does it mean to be married? For many, marriage has religious features, but those vary. At bottom marriage is a contractual arrangement that has evolved, just like every other kind of contractual arrangement, in many directions over the millennia. Government control of the possible permutations of such arrangements is neither necessary, nor desirable, nor morally defensible.

In fact, marriage licensing appeared in the mid-19th century in the US for the specific purpose of enabling states to ban interracial marriage. It’s one of the last and most stubborn remnants of Jim Crow. It’s time to bring an end to that era of darkness. The developing fight over polygamy is custom-made to hasten that outcome. The more complex marriage becomes, the less workable one-size-fits-all licensing schemes become.

Libertarian science fiction author Robert Heinlein envisioned a future in which various forms of marriage flourish, allowing families to conserve capital over centuries instead of mere decades and create perpetual rather than temporary  legacies to support their descendants. We’re standing in the doorway of that future.  Time to step through.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.