Opinion writer

From the Marshall Project, here’s a stark illustration of how traffic fines can be particularly pernicious and debilitating for poor people:

To visit someone in a Michigan state prison, you have to fill out an application and send it to the Department of Corrections with a self-addressed envelope. A couple of months after I mailed mine in, they sent me a sheet of paper saying that I was not approved to see either of my two sons, Harvey and Antwan, who are incarcerated.

You can’t see your child, they told me, because you have outstanding debt.

I have never committed a crime. The only thing on my record is tickets: parking tickets, license plate registration tickets, one for not having proof of insurance, and a couple of others—all of which are more than four years old. I don’t have any moving violations, like speeding.

But I do owe $1,485.

I’m 64 and have lived in Detroit my whole life. I was a receptionist at the city social services department, and an attendance lady at the high school, and helped wash patients at a hospice care facility. I also worked at a poultry shop once. I’ve worked for a long time.

Read the whole thing here. At the very least, let’s hope the publicity helps get this woman’s record cleared so she can visit her sons. But the larger problem remains. Yes, you should follow the law. You shouldn’t park illegally. But as we’ve explained here before, it’s more complicated than that. When cities and states become as reliant on the debt that people like Joyce Davis owe as people like Joyce Davis are reliant on that same money, you have a system where local governments need people such as Joyce Davis to park illegally, to speed and to accumulate fines. That is a terribly unhealthy relationship between the government and the governed.

In the end, debt to the state shouldn’t ever preclude someone from working, commuting or maintaining bonds to family. When it gets in the way of basic life needs and functions, it becomes a crippling weight that traps people in a cycle of despair.