How You Can Be Too Poor to Vote

New Orleans     An op-ed was published in the New York Times about the $10 million people who owe $50 billion in debt from their experience in the criminal injustice system written by Danielle Lang and Thea Sebastian who are civil rights attorneys connected to the Civil Rights Corps and the Campaign Legal Center respectively.  It is so shocking and timely, that I want to bring it to you pretty much whole.

Here goes:

As Election Day approaches, triggering feverish drives to turn out new voters, over six million people will be denied the right to register and cast a ballot this November. That’s almost 3 percent of the United States’ adult population.

While many Americans would claim to believe in second chances, this country’s felony laws frequently block people from full participation in our society after they’ve served time by denying them the right to vote. Those who have completed their sentences are all too often prevented from casting ballots simply because they have unpaid court fines and fees. In seven states — Arkansas, Arizona, Alabama, Connecticut, Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida — laws explicitly prohibit people who owe court debt from voting. In other states — such as North Carolina, New Mexico and Wisconsin — in order to regain the vote, people must complete parole or probation, which often requires paying excessive fines and fees.

In all these cases, the price tag can be significant: In North Carolina, for example, people who have been incarcerated must pay $40 per month in supervision fees and $90 per month if placed on electronic monitoring. And these are often alongside the fees that they have already racked up. These include $60 to determine whether a person is too poor to afford a lawyer, $10 a day for each day that he or she is jailed pretrial because bail was unaffordable, and $600 if the prosecutor tests evidence at the state crime lab.

A national research project collecting information from 14 states found families owe on average $13,600 in court-related fees and fines. We’ve seen reporting on people who owe tens of thousands —$33,000 in one instance and $91,000 in another. And, in too many states, you cannot cast a ballot until you’ve paid every penny.

Regardless of the stated goal of this policy, the effects are clear: Wealthy people can pay these fees and vote immediately, while poor people could spend the rest of their lives in a cycle of debt that denies them the ability to cast a ballot.

You may be wondering: Where do these fees come from? The answer is that the criminal system charges individuals for almost everything. In every state but Hawaii and the District of Columbia, there are charges for the “privilege” of wearing an ankle monitor. In 44 states, there are charges for probation and parole supervision. In 43 states and the District of Columbia, there are charges for public defenders — even though our Constitution guarantees both counsel and criminal trials. In 41 states, people are charged for “room and board.” And the list goes on. In Ohio, all told, there are 118 different fees and surcharges.

By the time people re-enter society, they often owe thousands in debt. Nationally, about 10 million people owe over $50 billion in debt associated with the criminal justice system. Worse, this money is generally being demanded from people who are unlikely to be able to pay it. A Brookings paper that linked data from the entire prison population to earnings records over a 16-year period showed, at best, only about half of those recently released are able to find work at all — and even when they do get a job, many earn an income well below the poverty line.

The combination of employment discrimination, license suspension, housing restrictions and other barriers to economic stability makes re-entry into society — and the ability to earn enough to pay off court debt — nearly impossible.

When citizens are denied a fundamental right based solely on wealth, a bedrock principle of our Constitution — that our government cannot deny poor people basic rights in our society simply because they are poor — is violated. Lawyers from Civil Rights Corps have used this argument in dozens of cases, arguing against practices that include wealth-based detention, driver’s license suspension over unpaid debts, and the extension of probation terms when people can’t afford drug testing and supervision fees.

In the seven states that explicitly hinge voting rights restoration on debt repayment, legislators should remove those provisions from the law. We must end the practice that allows states to link voting rights to debt repayment and completion of probation or parole. And, until they do advance those reforms, governors should use clemency power to ensure that those barred from restoring voting rights solely because of unpaid debt can vote immediately. We won’t have full democracy unless every voice is heard at the ballot box.

Amen!

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Supreme Court Sinks More Homeowners into Permanent Debt

dead_economy-300x199New Orleans    In a startling unanimous decision, the US Supreme Court overturned an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision finding in favor of Bank of America that even bankruptcy protection does not allow underwater homeowners the ability to escape the obligations of second mortgages.  The impact of the decision allows zombie banks to continue operating on the basis of balance sheets reflecting virtually lifeless real estate holdings and makes these beleaguered homeowners into walking dead debtors with virtually no hope of a second chance.The Supreme Court once again reminds Americans that the Constitution is fundamentally about property rights and that the sanctity of a contract trumps all vestiges of common sense.

Generally speaking, a home is commonly classified as “underwater” if the value of the outstanding mortgage is 25% higher than the current market value of the home.  Remember the mortgage we are talking about here is the first mortgage.  The second mortgage is satisfied after the first is fulfilled.  Many of these second mortgages are home improvement loans.  Others arose from the need to finance children’s education or medical emergencies by attaching what has historically been the primary asset creating citizen wealth for the vast majority of low and moderate income families in the country.   Bank of America in their court filings estimated that there were 2.1 million underwater homeowners with second mortgages at the end of 2014.   Others like Zillow estimated that there are still 8 million homeowners who are underwater and most real estate experts estimate that it is likely that half of them have some kind of “second” on their homes.  This is not an insignificant problem in either the economic recovery or the hope for narrowing the equity gap.

Of course not all of these families had declared bankruptcy, partially because banks and others have done an amazing job over recent years with Congress in making bankruptcy both harder to achieve for desperate families and less valuable as a chance for a clean slate and a second chance.  Filing for bankruptcy does not allow someone to wipe out a mortgage debt or a student loan debt for example.  The mortgage obligation is what forces an underwater homeowner into foreclosure.  The best hope for the debtor is that surrendering what used to be an asset to the bank, calls quits to that debt.  In 2007 and 2008 when ACORN was negotiating with big banks and mortgage loan servicers as the implosion began, I was at some of those meetings.Executives then believed that they would just have to wipe out their second mortgage portfolios as worthless.

The Supreme Court’s decisions says, “no way, you’re stuck.”Hey, some day in the by and by, real estate values may go back up, allowing the loan to be collected.  Some of these properties are so far underwater that it won’t be a year but a generation for that to happen.  For the banks paying a dollar on that loan every 90 days allows them to still call it a performing loan, helping their zombie balance sheets, and leaving the debtor, desperate for a clean start, carrying even more weight. The Justices say, “dude, it’s a contract, didn’t you get that?”  The debtors, like millions of others, were on the merry-go-round being pushed by these same bankers and promoters in the real estate bubble into these sucker bets.  These weren’t contracts as much as cons.

Only death relieves some of these debts.It’s already legal for 25% of someone’s social security to be attached.  Now the Supreme Court has just locked another ball and chain onto untold numbers of families with little hope for the future but dragging the weight behind them, sentenced to a life as walking dead, not in debtors’ prison, but in a permanent debtors’ probation of sorts with little or no chance of escape.

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Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues (Live)

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