“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor, to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.” — Anatole France
Any democratic republic which depends for its vitality and legitimacy on a well-informed citizenry can ill afford the sort of willful ignorance so much in evidence nowadays. Refusal to look behind the curtain and confront reality should be a matter of civic shame rather than one of pride.
The U.S. Supreme Court declared debtors prisons unconstitutional in 1983. This step was certainly long overdue but it also reflects the rosy storyline painted for me in public school about the Great American Dream.
On Oct. 31, Josh Drake, a deputy prosecutor in Garland County, Ark., was fired for going public with his deep moral and legal concern about the state’s “criminal eviction statute” he was required to enforce. This law made the inability to pay rent punishable not merely by civil penalties but by jail time.
The statute which, in effect, criminalizes poverty was passed into law in 1901 and provides that, after a single day’s delinquency, a tenant can be served notice to vacate within 10 days. On the 11th day, he can be called into court, put on trial, found guilty and sentenced to jail time. The tenant, now behind bars, is also liable for court imposed fines, for which the failure to pay leads to more time locked up.
Perhaps this is just one of those arcane codes no one pays attention to ... like so many outdated laws. No such luck. Since 2018, more than one thousand cases have been filed in Arkansas under the statute. During this same time frame, 47 renters have ended up in jail.
Surely the national moratorium on evictions which went into effect Sept. 4 brought this barbaric practice to a halt?
Not so. Even this effort to mitigate some of the worst results of massive unemployment created by the COVID-19 pandemic would fall on deaf ears. Since the moratorium went into effect, 49 indigent tenants have been charged.
Maybe Arkansas is just an anomaly. This sort of cruelty can’t possibly be institutionalized into laws anywhere else in our land of the free?
Actually, among others, states like Ohio, Missouri, Minnesota, Illinois, and Pennsylvania have laws which allow courts to impose prison sentences on those not following payment schedules awarded in civil suits. Thus, by a sinister twist, the debtor finds himself behind bars not for failure to pay but for contempt of court for failing to comply with an order.
At the risk of being written off as just one more bleeding-heart liberal (I am decidedly not. My views fall far to the left of even Bernie Sanders on most issues), I feel compelled to extend my censure over such barbaric practices to include Newt Gingrich’s position on the ways of dealing with the plight of the poor.
Remember Newt? In the pool considered for Trump’s running mate? A prominent speaker at the Republican National Convention last year?
Let’s go back to Gingrich’s salad days as Republican Speaker of the House. He pushed hard for the inclusion into the 1996 Welfare Reform Act a proposal for denying benefits to any unmarried mother under the age of 18 and proposed as well making that a lifetime exclusion. With a typically Republican eye on the dollar (except when it comes to war and billionaire tax breaks) the money thus saved, so ran the Republican argument, would be spent on the construction and operation of workhouses for welfare children. Here they would be taken from their mothers and supported at the state’s expense.
In a nation whose founding principles are underscored by the belief that the poor are poor because of some moral or ethical deformity, these sorts of laws make sense. If that were ever true, it may have existed in a wide-open wilderness expanse with seemingly unlimited opportunity. In a land such as ours today, the reality is one of a vicious inequality in the distribution of wealth and opportunity and those who support such a wicked system should be scorned and not the poor.
A lifelong activist, Steve McGehee settled here in 1973 and lives in Palouse with his wife Katherine. His work life has varied from bartender to university instructor to wrecking yard owner.