Massive income inequality, combined with Republican attacks on the taxation of the wealthiest, has produced a situation in which the state increasingly depends on extracting fines, interest and debt service from people who grow steadily poorer and less able to pay, and thus the state must turn to ever-more-extreme measures to extract the money it needs to survive.
Terrorizing people who are unable to pay into paying anyway is a fine art, honed by loan-sharks' arm-breakers over the centuries. Governments sometimes outsource their debt-collection to these firms — for years, deliquent student loans were collected by criminal thugs under government contract, and now they are again, thanks to pyramid-scheme millionaire Betsy DeVos, a predator whom Trump placed in charge of the nation's education.
But those public-private usury partnerships are nothing compared to the awesome might of the state used to directly coerce payments from the poorest and most desperate people in the country. Part of the untold story of the Ferguson uprising was that the city funded itself by overpolicing and overfining black people and then throwing them in debtors' prisons, a practice endemic to black cities in America.
In states across America, people who can't pay their court fines and fees can have their drivers' licenses suspended. Since most people rely on their drivers' licenses to get them to their jobs, this also ensures that they will never be able to pay their fees and fines, leading to another cycle of fees and fines and further penalties.
Likewise, in 20 states, you can have your professional qualifications suspended for failure to pay money owed to the court, which means that cash-strapped firefighters, nurses, teachers, lawyers, massage therapists, barbers, psychologists and real estate brokers will be unable to earn a living and pay their fees and thus will end up deeper in debt.
On the face of it, this is hard to understand: someone without a job can't pay their fines, so taking away peoples' employment is an absurd way to extract debt payments from them.
But when understood as part of a larger loan-sharking practice, it makes perfect sense. When a loan-shark breaks your elbows, he's depriving you of your ability to pay just as surely.
But in both cases, the target isn't your debt, it's the debt of everyone who observes your plight. By making an example out of you, the arm-breaker inspires everyone else to do whatever it takes to pay up — steal from relatives, sell their bodies, anything, to avoid your fate. Thus, the more grotesque your fate is, the better the tactic works.
The mayor's office in Washington this month started a pilot program to allow district residents returning home from prison with unpaid traffic debt to have their licenses reinstated, noting that this is a vulnerable time when the mobility to look for work and attend appointments is crucial. "The No. 1 reason for recently released men and women being re-incarcerated… is for driving without a valid license, which also can lead to additional charges for failing to stop and other related crimes," Susana Castillo, a spokeswoman for Mayor Muriel Bowser, said in an email.
The Washington program provides for those returning home from prison to defer payment for up to a year while they look for work, or to pay a significantly reduced amount up front, according to the mayor's office.
The lawsuits tell the stories of people jailed for driving after having had their licenses suspended for failure to pay court debt—a situation that critics liken to debtors' prison. Robert Taylor is a plaintiff in the Virginia case who was earning $9.62 per hour working for T-Mobile and was pulled over for running a red light. This set off a cycle of debt, license suspensions, and new convictions for driving with a suspended license that landed him in jail for 20 days last year. He still owes more than $4,000 in court debt.
The Vicious Cycle of Losing a Driver's License Over Court Debt