A sheriff in Lawrence County, Arkansas, is working to collect $500,000 in unpaid court fees from those previously convicted of felonies, according to an Associated Press story. If they don't pay, they could be jailed.
This type of push by local and state courts began a year ago. The New York Times reported a story from Florida about the state's efforts to crack down on those who don't pay fines as a way to close budget gaps. Many states considered following Florida's lead. The Times told the story of Valerie Gainous, a single mother of four who wrote bad checks. She had otherwise paid her restitution and performed community service, but she faced going to jail over $240.
If society decides it's important to prosecute those who write bad checks, then society should pay for it. But charging court fees on top of meting out punishment helps hide the true cost of pursuing that prosecution. It also targets a state's poorest citizens, and it doesn't raise a lot of money. And it's just another example of states leaning on, or cutting services for, their neediest citizens to balance state budgets.
For example, there's already an over-reliance on state sales tax to raise revenues in Arkansas, argue Stephen Copley and Pat Bodenhamer. The two make a Christian argument on EthicsDaily.com to instead raise more taxes from corporations and the wealthy:
Overall, low and middle income families in Arkansas (those with incomes less than $40,000) pay 12 cents of every dollar they earn in all state and local taxes, compared to just 6 cents on every dollar paid by the richest 1 percent (those with incomes more than $326,000).
Closing that gap could raise more money. Instead, Gov. Mike Beebe just signed into law a new sales tax that will raise taxes on cigarettes to 59 cents. The cigarette tax and the court fee push to collect from the state's poorest residents are just another way to avoid raising taxes on those who can actually afford to pay more, but who have the loudest voices with which to protest taxes.
-- Monica Potts
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