Commentary

Paul Martin: Money-driven criminal justice system drives poverty, crime rate

February 14, 2014 

One thing that needs to be discussed is “the money-driven nature of the criminal justice system” and how it drives poverty and actually increases crime and other dangerous activities, such as car chases.

For instance, a young man is making $10 an hour and in order for his car to pass inspection the mechanic informs him he needs to come up with $500. He does not have the money, so he continues to drive with an expired inspection and expired registration. A police officer stops him and writes him a citation instead of a warning ticket which the officer has the discretion to do. This drives the young man deeper into debt by $300 to $400 and he has to take a day off to go to court. He can’t go to court because he can’t afford to pay the fine and his license is suspended . He has to drive to go to work and gets stopped again for driving while his license is suspended.

This cycle makes the young man depressed and hopeless and his problem with repeated traffic citations costs him his job. We are driving him into a criminal posture. Add to this that he has acquired a reputation with several young police officers as a repeat traffic offender and every time he is stopped he is asked if he can be searched for drugs. If the original officer had written a warning ticket this escalation into criminality may not have occurred. Many law enforcement officers lack compassion in their dealing with young men of a certain appearance.

Two young men are on a street corner and get into a shoving match. The police come and arrest them for simple affray and assault rather than lecturing them and breaking up the fight like the old time police. They go to court, they now have a violent criminal history even though they are not dangerous. They are put on probation for 18 months and ordered to go to anger management. They must pay $40 per month to probation, pay a $250 fine and pay at least $95 per hour for six hours of anger management – a total of $1,330.00. Neither has a full time job, can’t make the required payments, fall into despair, fail to meet their probation officer, their probation is violated, and they are locked up in jail periodically at a cost of at least $70 per day to the taxpayers. Tired of jail they commit crimes to pay their court fees.

Additionally, since they have acquired a reputation with the police they are treated like trash by the police and searched every time they are encountered. This treatment of certain young men by law enforcement plus the money-driven nature of the criminal justice system is creating situations where young men feel they have no choice but to work in the underground economy.

Policing in Durham needs to be calibrated with a little more compassion and the police must stop fishing for crime through useless traffic stops in high crime neighborhoods. Proactive prevention of violence and property crime can only happen if law enforcement gets to really know the people in the neighborhoods, not alienate people with minor but costly traffic citations.

Paul Martin is a senior officer in the Durham County Sheriff’s Office. He originally wrote this to the mayor and City Council, and have printed it with his permission.

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