Among The Many Things We Need To Rethink..

Political conventions and government structures that have been in place for many years–some since America’s founding–are proving increasingly dysfunctional. I’ve addressed a number of them in this blog: the Electoral College, partisan redistricting, the filibuster and many others are widely recognized to be counterproductive to 21st Century expectations about democratic fairness and effective governance.

We can add a number of other “resistant to change” elements to the list; as one of my sons recently reminded me, thanks to population shifts, the U.S. Senate is wildly unrepresentative. For example, of the  candidates who won election to the 114th Senate, the Democrats received 20 million more votes than the Republicans. For another, by 2040,  predictions are that nine states will be home to half of the country’s population: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. The populations of those states will be represented by eighteen Senators. The remaining fifty percent will be represented by eighty-two.

Short of revolution, it is unlikely that we are going to be able to change things like the Senate’s disproportionate representation or the Electoral College–at least, not any time soon. But there are other public policies and longtime practices that are amenable to evidence-based change. One example–recently the subject of analysis by the Brennan Center— is the use of cash bail, fees and fines in the criminal justice system

The past decade has seen a troubling and well-documented increase in fees and fines imposed on defendants by criminal courts. Today, many states and localities rely on these fees and fines to fund their court systems or even basic government operations.

A wealth of evidence has already shown that this system works against the goal of rehabilitation and creates a major barrier to people reentering society after a conviction. They are often unable to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in accumulated court debt. When debt leads to incarceration or license suspension, it becomes even harder to find a job or housing or to pay child support. There’s also little evidence that imposing onerous fees and fines improves public safety.

The study examined ten counties in the states of Texas, Florida, and New Mexico, and also looked at statewide data for those three states. The counties were chosen to ensure a variety of geographic, economic, political, and ethnic profiles, as well as in the way they collected and enforced their use of fees and fines.

Now, this first-of-its-kind analysis shows that in addition to thwarting rehabilitation and failing to improve public safety, criminal-court fees and fines also fail at efficiently raising revenue. The high costs of collection and enforcement are excluded from most assessments, meaning that actual revenues from fees and fines are far lower than what legislators expect. And because fees and fines are typically imposed without regard to a defendant’s ability to pay, jurisdictions have billions of dollars in unpaid court debt on the books that they are unlikely to ever collect. This debt hangs over the heads of defendants and grows every year.

States spend a lot of money chasing after fees that will never be paid, mostly because the people against whom they are levied don’t have the money to pay them. The researchers found that one New Mexico county spent at least $1.17 to collect every dollar of revenue it actually realized, losing money through the process.

Funds currently being expended to collect the uncollectible would be better used for efforts that can be shown to actually improve public safety.

While political scientists are trying to figure out how to rescue American democracy from permanent minority rule, we might start addressing issues like this one, which should be more manageable…


  1. “Political conventions and government structures that have been in place for many years–some since America’s founding–are proving increasingly dysfunctional.” The removal of the Electoral College, based on state populations, is primary in resolving many political issues.

    Basically it appears the Democratic and Republican parties have traded places since the Civil War; the GOP’s more dramatic change has pendulumed to an opposite pole. The Democratic party not as dramatic but, like the southern Democratic party, not as strong. These changes have brought about dysfunction in both parties due to confused results on issues such as voting and civil rights and the current taxation system enacted by Trump has caused greater disparity regarding economic issues for 98% of Americans with more to come due to his tariff games. The current Trump Republican party appears to be based on the Sovereignty Commission foundation of “protection from encroachment thereon by the Federal Government” by ignoring all Rule of Law and Constitutional protection for all but themselves as they have created their own “Federal Government”.

    “States spend a lot of money chasing after fees that will never be paid, mostly because the people against whom they are levied don’t have the money to pay them.”

    Let’s move the above statement to Trump’s international complaint regarding other nations not paying their fair share, or what HE views as their fair share, as the reason he has damaged our diplomatic relations beyond repair as well as tearing this country apart as we watch the impeachment process with McConnell blatantly siding with Trump. While states waste state revenue the federal government has given Trump the key to our tax dollars for his entertainment budget and allowed him to reap millions in profits based on his appointed presidency. Yes; we do have many issues at state and federal levels we need to rethink.

    I watched the CNN news report this morning that Trump will now “draw down” our troops in Afghanistan by bringing 4,000 of them home. Then why, AFTER his “surprise”trip to Afghanistan did my grandson in the U.S. Navy receive orders deploying him to Afghanistan from February to October 2020? “Oh the games people play now, every night and every day now. Never saying what they mean now, never meaning what they say.”

  2. Florida is an excellent example of the effects of the onerous fines imposed on people who often are indigent. In the last election, the voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum allowing most of those convicted of a felony to regain the right to vote once they have been released from jail. But because the Republican-dominated legislature decided that most of those people will probably vote for Democrats, they passed a law requiring that these people pay all fines assessed against them before they are “re-enfranchised.” The matter is in the court system, because the referendum said nothing about fines. It will end up in the state Supreme Court, which was packed with Republican judges by the new governor, so the law may be upheld on one fine point or another. One more point. Annoyed about the referendum, the legislature passed another law doing away with the commission that puts referenda before the voters (once enough signatures have been collected).

  3. While some issues appear to be “manageable” and could be addressed now, the likelihood of that happening is slim to none. First, a study committee will have to be formed. Then consultants will have to be hired, and then an interim report issued. After that, more consultants will have to be hired, and somewhere in this process the matter will be shelved and forgotten. Years later the issue will come up again, and the process will start all over again. Kind of like mass transit for Indianapolis.

  4. This all sounds like a need for Amendments to our Constitution that actually revamp these outdated practices. Good luck with that. The Republican party has been trying to destroy the Constitution for decades. It is an inconvenience to their donors wants and desires. Until Republicans are gone as a political force, we will continue to circle the drain and see our inequities mount.

    Revolution? Maybe. Static decay is the more likely outcome.

  5. Theresa; thanks for mentioning the Indianapolis mass transit problems. The Red Line is a test case for electric powered buses; if I remember correctly it is funded (initially?) by outside sources. The many problems the Red Line has caused, no matter who paid for it, are costing residents time, money and inconvenience on that route. No left turns so people living, working or doing business on the route must go blocks out of their way to leave or return; time, gas and additional wear on vehicles. Emergency vehicles must also use different routes, no left turn due to cement median where the bus stops in the middle of the street ends leaving only one lane in each direction. The Indygo buses still using the route with their stops at every block causing traffic behind to sit burning gas repeatedly till they start up again, only one lane so no way to pass the buses. The city of Indianapolis may not be paying for the initial investment but who will be paying to continue the “service” which has had numerous complaints. Indiana may be at the bottom of the list regarding education and freedom of religion but are at the top of the sucker list for this test case. And we still have major mass transit problems where it is needed most.

  6. In Indiana, if you kill somebody and are convicted of a felony, you are still eligible for food stamps when you get out of prison. However, if your felony conviction is drug-related, you are permanently disqualified. This federal law was passed by Bill Clinton and imposed on the states.

    Not only are fees excessive and mostly uncollectible, but society as a whole also makes it difficult. Employers discriminate against felons, and so do many housing complexes.

    Many released offenders find it much easier on the inside than the outside. Since they cannot earn an honest living or have to resort to minimum wage jobs, the lure of returning to their old behavior increases. Recidivism rates for drug crimes are over 60%.

    The goal of those inside the criminal justice might be rehabilitation, but society does not embrace “rehabbed felons.”

    I don’t see U.S. citizens revolting any time soon. According to the statistics, we are too fat and lazy as a whole. We’ll double down on escapism from our hellish reality as things get much worse. Those who paint a picture of our dystopian reality are on to something.

  7. The entire world understands the end game for the recreation of the aristocracy, economic enslavement of the commoners. No more self government for workers, consumers, tax payers, families, or communities starting from the bottom up. Rule by wealth through the tool of debt instead.

    Extreme wealth redistribution from pervasive social/entertainment media through advertising/fake news/propaganda/brainwashing replacing knowledge with the comfort of the soft economic prison.

    Human history will be determined from then by our choice between comfort and the freedom of accomplishment.

  8. I read a squib recently to the effect that if we were starting all over again we would not come up with anything resembling the Constitution we live under today. The author is correct. We have roughly 100 times more people than we had in 1789 when there were approximately three and one half million people living along the Atlantic seaboard. Now we have some 38 million people in California alone with two senators and states with less than a million people who also have two senators, and this against a pretended measure of majority rule.

    It isn’t such a measure today, but our founders (who followed the English example of an appointive and largely ceremonial House of Lords in coming up with a Senate) substituted state legislatures with the appointive powers rather than the monarch, only having our Senate become an elective office in the 20th century. The House of Lords had little power, and its American counterpart led by the likes of a McConnell would have been impossible in that day.

    Madison clearly believed that the House (fashioned after the English House of Commons) as the elected voice of the people should have control of legislation, giving such body the power of, among other things, impeachment of presidents, but now we are witness to senators who openly say they will not consider evidence the impeaching authority has uncovered in prematurely announcing that our current executive will not be convicted on such already disregarded evidence, a situation tantamount to having a jury foreman advise the court that the jury has decided the guilt or innocence of the defendant before hearing the evidence, which would be a first in my experience as both prosecutor and defense counsel.

    But to the point > don’t hold your breath for a new and fairer Constitution. The Constitution itself provides for how it is to be amended and renewed, and is deliberately made difficult so that its terms cannot be amended in the heat of a banana republic weekend moment. It is a long and arduous process, and I see two other problems in such connection: (1) Small states (Wyoming Alaska et al) will not willingly give up their bloated senatorial representation, and (2) Political and financial interests like the Constitution as it is since they can use their influence to have politicized courts interpret and reinterpret its terms to suit their aims and goals.

    So when will we have an updated Constitution to fit the times? To reiterate > don’t hold your breath. We apparently are stuck with the one we have, so we will continue to interpret and reinterpret Sherman, Roe, Marbury etc. to the end of time, or perhaps earlier via an executive order from some Big Brother like Trump abolishing this old governing artifact and relegating it to the Memory Hole of 1984. Time will tell.

  9. Rehabilitation is now an archaic term. I read recently where prisoners are being charged to read books. From Newsweek November 26, 2019 >>> A 2019 contract between the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (WVDCR) and Global Tel Link (GTL) states that inmates will be charged 3 cents a minute to read books—which is currently considered the “discount rate”—despite the fact that all available books come from Project Gutenberg, a free online library, as the Appalachian Prison Book Project (APBP) pointed out.

    This is the American Steroid Capitalism Way, Profit off of someone else’s misery. It extends into Health Care – Profit off of someone’s disease or sickness. Exploit, Exploit, Exploit whenever possible.

    Good article from the Guardian: >>>

    The hidden scandal of US criminal justice? Rural incarceration has boomed. The number of people in jail nationwide has increased over the past four years – rebounding after a brief dip – and it is rural counties that have been the primary driver of that increase, even as major cities continue to lock up fewer people. According to our data, jail incarceration in rural counties has risen a staggering 27% since 2013, while urban incarceration has declined 18%.

    Behind the abstract number of people in jail on a given day, there are millions of human beings who cycle in and out of jail each year, racking up unpayable fines, losing their jobs, their children, their health and even their lives.

    In many communities, the only institutions that have seen increased or sustained investment are the local police force and the county jail. This is despite decades of evidence showing that incarceration is a poor investment in public safety: it has rapidly diminishing effects on crime, and has utterly failed to reduce violent crime. In contrast, investments in education, jobs, housing and health actually produce safety. Rural Americans haven’t been asking for more jails. But jails are all that has been on offer.

    The Probation System is another money maker for American Steroid Capitalism.

  10. The Constitution was never an end all document of perfection. By the 18th Century slavery was a fact. 56 men signed the Declaration of Independence as best we know 41 owned slaves. So All Men were not Created Equal.

    The Constitution’s flaws were a result of we Americans in that age and after, by social and cultural prejudices. Even so, it was a flexible document that over time was updated to reflect society’s changes, even when they were glacially slow.

    There is not going to be a document to guide us with the precision of NASA like procedures. Even with all the procedures, tests, checks and balances we still had an Apollo 13, which was resolved by human ingenuity.

  11. “In Indiana, 43,200 Hoosiers are in state prison or jail and 116,700 people are on probation or parole. 34% of Indiana’s incarcerated population is Black, as compared to 9% of the state population.” Smart Justice ACLU Indiana

    At a recent panel discussion that included 3 Indiana parolees, panelists discussed fees and fines as part of the “rehabilitation process”. According to the presenters, 34% of parolees return to prison, not because they re-offend but because they are unable to afford the fees associated with parole. Fees and fines can be as high as $400 a month. Failing to make payments in a timely manner can mean a quick return to prison with the possibility of additional fines/fees added on, added time to the sentence and a negative report on their credit score. Without a job, a permanent address, transportation to random drug tests and reporting a non-functioning ankle monitor, the likelihood of recidivism is very high.

    Those incarcerated individuals who suffer from mental illnesses including addiction are not treated but punished with isolation, constant sedation or abuse. Returning to “freedom” does not change the underlying cause of the behavior that got them incarcerated in the first place. Prison personnel are not trained to identify and treat mental illnesses.

    One parolee said when he accepted parole, he had no real understanding of the debt he would incur and the difficulty he would have holding a job since most employers, even when they are willing to hire convicted felons, expect workers to be on the job without the constant interruptions of drug tests and monitoring malfunctions. He said he would have stayed in prison until his sentence was served had he known what was ahead. He described the many months he struggled to find any housing for himself and his family. He considered himself lucky to find Goodwill’s New Beginnings program where he has an employer who has a clear understanding of the obstacles he faces. His fees and fines are a substantial amount of his income, putting him and his family well below poverty level.

    Is it any wonder so many of the poor and POC go back to prison? They have no reasonable expectation that they will ever be debt free and able to live a productive life.

    Private prisons want guaranteed bodies in the cells. Punitive instead of rehabilitating for all too many young men and, increasingly, young women, the justice system is anything but just.

  12. In regards to your comments about the Senate. Wouldnt any solution to this perceived problem equate to an abolition of the Senate, given the grievance of population representation, resulting in a what in practice would be a single chamber legislature?

Comments are closed.