Repeated Assaults -- And No Remedies

A recent front page New York Times report reveals that individuals caught by authorities and detained as illegal immigrants are being paid $1 a day or less to work at the detention centers they are kept in while their cases are awaiting resolution. There are an estimated 135,000 people who are held in detention centers, many of which are operated by profit making corporations. The detainees are paid at a rate of 13 cents per hour, compared with the $7.25 federal minimum wage. Unlike convicted criminals who forfeit their right to a minimum wage while serving a sentence, these individuals are civil detainees. Some are being made to work while sick and are put in solitary confinement if they refuse. Rules in place that prohibit detainees from working more than 40 hours a week, or eight hours a day, are often ignored. Professor Jacqueline Stevens from Northwestern University compared these conditions to those of slaves.

The Washington Post ran a front-page story that reveals that school buses in D.C. have been caught speeding and running red lights by traffic cameras, but unlike ordinary motorists most school bus drivers do not pay for the tickets or face disciplinary action. This is despite the fact that their poor driving resulted in 20 accidents, one of which injured four people.

As I was becoming unsettled over these reports, I heard on NPR that U.S. courts are increasingly willing to incarcerate defendants who are unable to pay even small fines, a burden that is falling disproportionately on poor African-Americans and Latinos. Moreover, defendants are also billed for services they are provided during incarceration, some of which are constitutionally required. In 43 states and D.C., defendants are billed for their public defenders, and in Washington State, defendants are charged a fee of $250 for a jury trial. Moreover, defendants are routinely billed for room and board in jails and prisons (in at least 41 states), probation and parole services (in at least 44 states), and electronic monitoring devices they are court-ordered to wear (in all states except Hawaii and D.C.). Furthermore, defendants may be billed for their own arrest warrants, court-ordered drug and alcohol treatment, and DNA collection procedures. Fees add up for poor persons who are incarcerated for failure to pay small fines associated with minor offenses and who cannot then pay charges associated with their incarcerations. In the past, defendants were able to perform community service as an alternative to paying fines, but even where that option is available today it comes with a cost of $5 per day. Moreover, the interest rates attached to court fees in some states make it nearly impossible for defendants to pay them off, as in Washington State where a 12 percent interest rate can transform a $2,500 fine into a $3,000 debt, even after four years of making regular payments of $10 a month. Not only does debt accrue, but failing to pay court costs can deprive people of other social benefits such as their driver's license or access to food stamps. In some states, people with fiscal debts to the court lose their right to vote. Courts are deriving considerable revenue from these billing practices, revenue that is funding courthouse staff and amenities, like employee fitness centers.

What gets to me the most are not these abuses, and others which I read about every other day -- but the absence of a reaction. I would expect, in a society that prides itself on being law-abiding and respectful of individual rights, that when such outrages are revealed by the media, swift action would follow. Instead, most of the time I hear very little about any reforms, and often find later that the same abuses continue. As I was wondering what this tells us about the state of the nation, I caught the following report on 60 Minutes, about PACs.

Americans think it is illegal for politicians to profit personally from their political office. However, the creation of leadership political action committees (PACs) allows members of Congress to sidestep the Ethics Reform Act of 1989, which bans the use of campaign funds for personal use. For example, Democratic Congressman Robert Andrews of New Jersey used $16,000 of his PAC revenue to fly his family to Scotland to attend the wedding of a friend whom Andrews said he was thinking of hiring as a political consultant; Republican Congressman Ander Crenshaw of Florida spent $32,000 hosting a tour of California wineries for his contributors from the defense industry; Democratic Congressman Gregory Meeks of New York spent $35,000 brought in by his PAC on NFL games; and Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia used $100,000 raised by his PAC to fund expensive golf outings. Currently, even after a congressman dies, his PAC funds remain in an active account without oversight, and may be spent by his staff. Thus, the staffers in the office of Republican Congressman Paul Gillmor of Ohio spent PAC money on dinners and other staff events. Yet another way in which congressmen personally benefit from their PACs is by using them to loan money to their campaign funds and charging high interest rates. Democratic Congresswoman Grace Napolitano of California loaned herself $150,000 and accrued $228,000 in interest in a single year.

The reason I found this report especially telling is because it was a rerun of a news piece 60 Minutes first aired in October 2013. There was no need to revise it. Nothing changed. Before we can ask how we may restore this country to one that truly respects the law, we need to understand the full scope of the abuses -- and realize that we reached a state where many take the current level of abuse as a normal state of affairs and sit back when no reforms are undertaken.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University and author of The Spirit of Community.