On Sunday's Last Week Tonight, John Oliver slammed municipalities around the country that, similar to Ferguson, Missouri, target low-income, black residents with fines and court fees to balance their local budget.
"No one is saying that people who break the law should not be punished," Oliver said. "Not only should municipalities not be balancing their books on the backs of some of their most vulnerable citizens, but we cannot have a system where committing a minor violation can end up putting you in — and I'm going to use a legal term of art here — the fuck barrel."
Many people seem to agree. Since Oliver's show aired, the hashtag #ShutDownTheFuckBarrel has taken off on Twitter.
During the show, Oliver cited the story of Harriet Cleveland, who went to jail in Montgomery, Alabama, after she racked up traffic violations she couldn't afford. "I had my grandbaby with me, and I was setting up, giving him breakfast that morning, and I heard a knock on the door, and I saw a police officer at my door," she told the Southern Poverty Law Center. "In the back of my mind, it wasn't for me, because I didn't figure they'd come get you for tickets. I was escorted to jail."
In many cities and counties, failing to pay a ticket can often lead to more fines and fees, driver's license suspensions, and even jail time. What's worse, sometimes private, for-profit companies like Judicial Correction Services handle this debt collection for local governments, racking up as much money as possible. These schemes can often turn tickets worth $40 or $100 into monthly payments that add up to the thousands.
Under these circumstances, Cleveland's life spiraled out of control. She lost her driver's license, which made it more difficult to get to work to make money to pay her fines. She took a title loan on her car, but she couldn't pay that back and eventually lost her vehicle. Her utility bills became more difficult to pay. When all of this became too much for her to handle, she was thrown in jail. And all of this occurred in the backdrop of the Great Recession around 2008, which led to Cleveland losing her job at a day care center.
SPLC managed to get Cleveland out of jail after 10 days, arguing that she was being subjected to a modern debtors' prison, a type of institution that has supposedly been outlawed in the US since the 1830s. But many people across the country go through similar experiences without getting help from groups like SPLC.
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