Are we punishing the poor hard enough? 

Michael DiFrancesco got a $185 ticket for possession of alcohol when he was 14 years old. That was in 2008. Because he was unable to pay the fine or the enrollment fee for his court-ordered substance-abuse education course, he has been ineligible for a driver's license ever since. Although his original MIP citation was removed from his record when he turned 18, Montana law revokes the license of anyone with unpaid fines. Over the last nine years, a series of citations for driving without a license have increased the amount he owes the state to nearly $4,000.

Two weeks ago, DiFrancesco became the plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed by the Washington, D.C., civil rights nonprofit Equal Justice Under Law, which alleges that Montana's license suspension policy unfairly discriminates against the poor. (See "Driving while poor," Sept. 7.) "Although Montana's automatic suspension of driver's licenses is designed to coerce payment," the suit argues, "no incentive or punishment will increase the likelihood of a person paying a debt if he or she does not have the money."

To this claim I say: Maybe. Or maybe we just haven't tried punishing poor people hard enough.

Anyone who has spent time around the poor—from the malcontents who bus our tables at brunch to the homeless who clog the sidewalks outside our favorite bars—knows they are getting a sweet deal. Ordinary people have to worry about complex issues like property taxes and the war on Christmas. Meanwhile, the poor waste their days on stupid questions like, "Where will I sleep?" and "What is a source of water and food?" Such people have been getting a free ride for too long.

I say it's time for the poor to pay their debts to society, just like the rest of us. The problem with this lawsuit is that it rewards DiFrancesco for breaking the rules.

What kind of 14-year-old has enough money to buy a can of beer but not enough to pay a $185 fine, plus the enrollment fee for a course to teach him that alcohol is bad? He should have just borrowed the money from his parents, like I did when I went to college to learn that alcohol is actually good.

That's what a responsible citizen does. He may break the law, but he always has enough money to make society forget about it.

click to enlarge opinion_poorcriminal.jpg

DiFrancesco's sob story reminds me of another boy who made a mistake but was responsible enough to set things right. When he was 56 years old, he committed a crime almost as serious as underage drinking: He threw a reporter to the ground and punched him in the face. Unlike DiFrancesco, though, he had the foresight to make $315 million dollars first, so he had no problem paying his $300 fine and $85 court fee. That boy was Greg Gianforte, and he went on to become a member of Congress.

If DiFrancesco were as responsible as Gianforte, he would have made at least $185 million before he got caught with alcohol. But I guess that's the difference between an upstanding member of society and a lifelong criminal.

I know what you're thinking: Isn't it unfair to fine poor people the same amount for breaking the law as multimillionaires? After all, we let poor people pay income taxes at a lower rate, and we offer them scholarships to college if they can play football, or gigantic student loans if they can't. Isn't it therefore regressive to issue fines with no regard for income? And I agree with you. Poor people get too many advantages already. If anything, we should let multimillionaires commit the first couple of crimes free, to thank them for all the jobs they create.

The cynically named Equal Justice Under Law seems to disagree. With this lawsuit, they even want to offer poor people free legal representation. What would the Founding Fathers say? If George Washington were alive today, he would stop screaming only long enough to throw up.

America was founded on two principles. The first is that if you break the rules, anything we do to you afterward is justified. Gang-raped in jail after you got picked up on a civil immigration charge? You should have applied for a green card. Forced into a cycle of homelessness and debt by a ticket that has ballooned to 20 times its original cost? You shouldn't have gotten caught with that beer when you were 14.

The second principle is that if you have enough money, the first principle doesn't apply. That's where DiFrancesco went wrong. We are a merciful society, and we're willing to forget people's mistakes if they're willing to pay for them. Not being able to pay your debt is the one thing we never forgive.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and justice on a sliding scale at combatblog.net.

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