Sunday, July 8, 2018

Poor Tax

In the South they had many ways to ensure the legacy of racism  via varying taxes and fees that enabled the powers to be to maintain the marginalization of faces of color.   What they also did was enable a sweeping legacy of poverty to cross color lines and in turn further divide and segregate the population at large.

I am always amazed at the disdain for education here in Tennessee but it is clear why due to the costs and in turn requirements to attend the schools that ring the city that enabled Nashville to be once called The Athens to the South.   I still find that hilarious as most of the schools are private, secular and in turn costly.  There is one college, Fisk, that has a long legacy of educating black students but in turn that is largely a school that is a fixture not an aspiration as the University of Tennessee just down the road has the largest minority enrollment in the region.  White students choose the State's Knoxville school to attend and MTSU has been a school that has been working on diversity and improving programs that enable it to draw a cross section of students.  But Belmont, Trevecca, Lipscomb and of course Vanderbilt are way out of reach for the average student not on a sports scholarship or other benefit in which to attend.   And having met many a student I am frankly largely unimpressed with what they are producing as a Graduate.  (But I assume this may be a larger problem across the country and no I don't think Harvard is giving us across the board genius's either)

Nashville spends day after day slapping itself on the back in a never ending humblebrag campaign about the city and its growth.  The hysteria over its development and in turn transformation is laughable as I wrote in the last entry and one before that that there is a true lack of urban planning and in turn large scale focus on what type of city Nashville wants to be.  I do think they are more like Boston down to the cultural divisions, the role of the Church, the racism and the elitism that dominates the culture.   I met a grad of Boston College and he was greatly impressed with his degree, his two years as a Teach for America participant and is now a Barista moving to Baltimore to do what? I have no fucking clue.  Nice boy but utterly dumb.  I have no idea how much said degree cost but he was functionally illiterate, originally from Oklahoma and his mother a Teacher.  It explains it all I think.  Just noting that Boston College is the Alma mater of Howard Stern.  So impressed, not.

This week again Tennessee made the national news and it was over the revoking of drivers licenses for those unable to pay the fees and fines invoked on people who cannot pay, then in turn the cycle of jailing, fining and further marginalizing the poor is just another way to oppress.  And here in Tennessee without a Driver's License it is near to impossible to vote.  Hmm... makes you think that is another way to oppress and suppress.
Being Poor Can Mean Losing a Driver’s License. Not Anymore in Tennessee.

By Richard A. Oppel Jr.
The New York Times
July 4, 2018

Millions of Americans have had their driver’s licenses taken away not because they got drunk and got behind the wheel, or because they caused an accident and hurt someone: They lost their licenses because they were too poor to pay court costs or traffic fines, which can run into hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars.

About 40 states have such laws on the books that suspend or revoke licenses of drivers. But now, a federal district judge has ruled that one of these laws, in Tennessee, violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

Experts say it is the first time a federal judge has formally declared any of these state laws unconstitutional. Critics have long argued that the laws make it harder for poor people to pay their debts, because the only way for them to do so — to get in the car and go to work — means breaking the law. And if they do drive, it means even more fees piled on if they get caught.

The ruling does not affect states other than Tennessee. But it still is a major victory for advocates of the poor who have targeted license revocation laws as some of the worst examples of statutes that effectively criminalize poverty, where fees and fines and bail money for even minor infractions can sweep people into a vortex of mounting debts out of which many will never climb.

The ruling in Tennessee could mean the reinstatement of driver’s licenses for more than 100,000 Tennessee residents. A similar lawsuit is also pending before the same judge over unpaid traffic fines that have cost about a quarter-million Tennesseans their licenses. The precise number of residents who would get their licenses back is unclear because some also lost driving privileges for other reasons and would still be subject to revocation.

In a ruling issued on Monday, Judge Aleta Trauger of Nashville cited the Tennessee law’s failure to provide an exception for people who were too poor to pay off court debts, even if they wanted to.

Kelly K. Smith, an official with the Tennessee attorney general’s office, said state leaders were disappointed with the decision and were now “considering all of our legal options.” The ruling instructs the state to stop these revocations and to find a way within 60 days to begin reinstating licenses taken away for no other reason than an inability to pay court debts.

“This is the barrier that people who are poor cannot overcome,” said Premal Dharia, director of litigation for Civil Rights Corps, one of the public interest groups that filed the Tennessee case on behalf of two men, who have each been homeless and who lost their license privileges over unpaid court debts.

“Not only can you not visit family members, or go to church, or go to school, but you cannot go to work to earn the money to pay off these debts if you cannot drive,” Ms. Dharia said. Other lawyers for the plaintiffs included public interest groups Just City and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, and a prominent national law firm, Baker Donelson.

According to evidence presented in the Tennessee case, 93.4 percent of workers who reside in the state drive to work.

The state revoked 146,211 driver’s licenses for failure to pay court debts between July 2012 and June 2016. Only about 7 percent of those people were able to get their licenses reinstated in that same period.

The plaintiffs in Tennessee are James Thomas and David Hixson. Both live in what Judge Trauger described as “severe poverty” and owe court debt from past convictions. Mr. Thomas, she wrote, is totally and permanently disabled; Mr. Hixson recently lived in a homeless shelter after serving time.

“Each man struggles to afford the basic necessities of life and is unable to pay the court debt assessed against him,” Judge Trauger wrote.

According to evidence in the case, Mr. Thomas, 48, owed $289.70 in court costs from a conviction for trespassing after sheltering under a bridge during a rainstorm when he was homeless. He was later rejected for a driver’s license because he had not paid those fees. Mr. Hixson, 50, owed $2,583.80 related to an unspecified criminal conviction, according to the judge’s opinion; his license was revoked.

The court debts that lead to revocations typically include fines imposed as punishment for misdemeanors and other lawbreaking, as well as fees levied to cover the costs of probation, incarceration, drug treatment, or even the use of public defenders.

Judge Trauger criticized the Tennessee law not just because it has the effect — an unconstitutional effect, she said — of treating the wealthy and the poor differently.

She also suggested that the law is bad public policy because it has the opposite effect of what was intended — spurring more people to pay off their debts.

“Losing one’s driver’s license simultaneously makes the burdens of life more expensive and renders the prospect of amassing the resources needed to overcome those burdens more remote,” she wrote.

Once a license is suspended, new costs can mount quickly. People in Tennessee caught driving with a revoked license can be punished with up to six months in jail and a $500 fine for a first offense, and up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine for each subsequent offense.

According to the Legal Aid Justice Center, a nonprofit that has fought against these laws, more than four million drivers have lost licenses over failure to pay court debts or traffic fines in just five states: Texas, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. Out of about 40 states with laws that can take licenses away for these debts, only a few require showing that the failure to pay is willful, the group says.

In Michigan, a federal district judge recently issued a preliminary injunction against a license revocation law, though state officials say the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has stayed the injunction as it reviews the case.

In total, as many as 10 million Americans currently have licenses revoked or suspended solely because they do not have the ability to pay these costs, said Lisa Foster, a former state judge in California who was director of the Department of Justice’s Office for Access to Justice during the Obama administration.

Judge Foster, now the co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a nonprofit that advocates eliminating many court fees, predicted the Tennessee ruling would be a harbinger of outcomes in legal challenges in other places.

In an interview, Judge Foster said a few states have already rowed back enforcement of these laws.

“When it is in the context of the justice system, the Supreme Court has said it is unconstitutional to treat two people differently who are identical in all respects except that one has money and one does not,” she said

The reality is that this is not just here as many states still run debtor's prisons, Seattle in Washington State does as well.  But what is amazing that this is the State that made it to the Supreme Court and who would have thought that it shows that this is just another unjust way in which to maintain Jim Crow as does property taxes, sales taxes and other means in which to place the largest costs onto the poor.  Tax the rich? Nah.  Keep the poor, poor is the best way to make sure they don't move next to you.

Again the lack of adequate public transportation, the further push of housing out of the city makes it near to impossible to get to jobs in the core that will enable one to pay said fines but then again who cares as if you can't see them jail them and make it even easier by paying more for those costs than via education and transportation.  They are beyond stupid here but this is again not new or limited to here. 

Here is a list you won't here Nashville brag about:

A state ranked 11th in poverty shouldn't have a law that yanks poor people's licenses

Tonyaa Weathersbee, Memphis Commercial Appeal Published July 5, 2018

Tennessee is the nation’s 11th poorest state. Memphis is the nation’s poorest large city. Given that, you’d think this state would stop making laws that keep poor people poor.

But it hasn’t.

Among other things, it taxes food. The poorest 20 percent of the state’s households pay 8.9 percent of their income on sales and excise taxes, while top-earning households pay 1.3 percent on those taxes.

And in Memphis, many working poor people must travel to jobs that are 10 to 35 miles away from where they live and away from a MATA route — which means they must cobble together thousands of dollars for a car so that they can get to the job they need to help pay for it.

Still, in 2012, state lawmakers piled on to that misery with a law that allowed people’s driver's licenses to be revoked if they couldn’t pay court costs.

That meant people convicted of even the most minor offenses — people who tend to be poor and struggling to rebuild their lives — couldn’t afford to start over because they couldn’t drive to a job. Or they couldn’t drive to school. Or to a job training program.

And if they drove anyway, they risked being arrested and jailed — and saddled with a new record and more court costs.

That made no sense.

Which is why the recent ruling by U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger was not only just and humane, but sensible.

In a much-watched case, Trauger ruled that revoking people’s licenses merely for failure to pay court costs violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment.

Because of it, 146,211 people had their licenses revoked between 2012 and 2016, and only 10,750 had them reinstated, which says that thousands couldn’t afford the court costs and were risking driving illegally simply to survive.

Trauger also called the law ineffective and counterproductive, and she ordered the state to halt revoking the licenses and to begin reinstating the licenses of those who had them revoked solely for failure to pay court costs.

Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City, a Memphis nonprofit that pushes smarter criminal justice solutions, said the law was bound to backfire.

"They passed it as a tool to collect more court debt, but it didn't work because people in poverty don't have money, so no matter what you do, you won't get the money," he said. "It was predictably a bad policy, and now (due to Trauger's ruling) it's probably a bad policy."

Shelby County’s top prosecutor, District Attorney General Amy Weirich, even lauded the decision. She said the law only hurt people who didn’t have the money to pay the costs, and that it would give her office more room to focus on the violent crime that plagues Memphis.

Yet, Tennessee isn’t the only state that snatches licenses from people who can’t afford to pay court costs. Forty-two other states and the District of Columbia have similar laws. The practice also is being reconsidered in many places, and Trauger’s ruling is expected to bring some heft to the trend toward ending it.

But this state, as poor as it is, shouldn’t have had a law like this in the first place. The fact that it did shows how lawmakers care little about dealing with the causes of poverty and more about punishing the people who are grappling with its effects.

Astonishingly, this legislature also passed a law this year that requires people who receive TennCare benefits to find a job, or go to school, or volunteer, or risk losing their benefits.

If some of those TennCare recipients are lucky enough to have a car, or access to a car, chances are some are unlucky enough to have unpaid court costs. So even if they find a job, or a school or place to volunteer, they can’t get there — at least not legally.

So, while it’s wonderful that Trauger applied some sense — as well as constitutionality — in tossing out this awful law, it still is shameful that in this impoverished state, with the nation’s most impoverished city, politicians view poor people as a target for political points and punishment, and not help.

They see them as exploitable on many levels — sales taxes, court costs and the like — to keep a system running that does little to lift them out of poverty and more to keep them mired in it.

Until that changes, Tennessee will grapple with poverty and other quality-of-life issues that, in some studies, rank it as one of the worst states to live.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

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