John Oliver Takes On Municipal Violations

The Department of Justice's disturbing report on the Ferguson Police Department not only revealed the city's institutional racism, but how it uses that racism to make money off of its poorest residents. And it's not just in Ferguson. Municipalities across the States sustain themselves off of money made from targeting and trapping lower-income citizens in never-ending fines. If this seems unfair to you, America's best non-American watchdog is two steps ahead of you. On Sunday's episode of Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver revealed how municipal violations are vicious cycles and how cities, with the help of private companies, can destroy people's lives.

Oliver starts the segment by listing some common municipal violations, such as speeding, trespassing, or even failing to vaccinate certain pets, like ferrets. Oliver quips:

That is actually against the law, so sorry ferret Jenny McCarthy; you're just going to have to get it done.

It's fair to say that we've probably all committed at least one of these violations at some point in our lives, and if we haven't been fined for it, it only means we didn't get caught. And while for most of us, tickets are just a hassle, for some, they can be devastating. Oliver introduces Harriet Cleveland, a woman who lives in Ferguson, Missouri, and one of the many African-American residents routinely targeted by law enforcement. Cleveland racked up some minor traffic tickets that she was unable to pay right away, Oliver says, which then accrued penalty fees, trapping her further. Then one day, police officers showed up as she was feeding her grandson and arrested her.

If you're thinking, how the f*ck is it possible for a grandmother to go to jail for traffic tickets, well, that is what this story is about.

Tickets themselves are expensive enough as they are — Oliver does the math and reveals that in some places, someone making minimum wage will have to work 35 hours just to pay off one speeding ticket. But then on top of that, every ticket comes with surcharges that raise the base fine significantly. For example, in California, the fine for running a stop sign is $35, but the state imposes 10 different surcharges and fees to make the total fee $238.

Just to put that in perspective, Oliver points out that $238 is the asking price for "this glorious unicorn with wheels on its hooves."

Municipal governments know that not everyone can pay these fines right away, so they take further advantage of that by offering payment plans that end up trapping the individuals. Oliver then plays a clip reporting that in New Orleans, you have to pay $100 just to sign up for the payment plan.

Yes, your payment plan begins with a payment plan payment. It's like your probation officer is M.C. Escher.

This system is widespread, Oliver reveals. At least 44 states charge people to be on probation, and that's how the municipalities are able to fund local services without raising taxes. Sound familiar? That's because the recent Department of Justice report revealed that the municipality of Ferguson was doing exactly that.

In a news clip, a reporter lists some findings from the report: officers competed to see who could write the most tickets, officers' promotions often depended on citation revenue, and in one incident, a police commander boasted to his superiors that there was a line of 10-15 people waiting to pay traffic tickets.

The only people who should be that excited about people waiting in line to hand over way too much money are Apple executives.

And if you can't pay right away in Ferguson, they'll "bleed you dry."

Oliver then plays a clip of Attorney General Eric Holder telling a press conference about a woman in Ferguson who got two parking tickets in 2007 totally $152. To date, she's paid more than $500 in fines and fees, and for some reason, she still owes $500 more.

That's more than $1,000 for a $150 ticket. Even people stocking hotel minibars are thinking, "That markup seems a little high."

And this system extends beyond Ferguson. A news clips shows that eight surrounding towns rely on similar fines for more than 30 percent of their revenue — some as high as 66 percent.

When that much of your budget comes from fines, you're actually rooting for people to break the law. Listen, everyone: we're going to have to close the library unless someone urinates up that wall and the rest of us start driving like maniacs, so put the pedal to the metal. Let's do it for the kids.

Naturally, systems like this hurt the poor the most. Some states even suspend your driver's license if you don't pay your fine on time. This practice is so common that in Orange County, Florida, they've created an event around it. An officer dressed up as the Grinch dumps a Santa bag full of licenses onto the ground, sending the message that if you're going to drive recklessly and impact other people's lives, then we're going to impact yours.

OK, first of all. You do know that the Grinch is the bad guy in that story, right? It's not about a brave green crime fighter who saves Whoville from a guy driving his sleigh 10 miles over the speed limit.

As for those driver's licenses, the report continues to reveal that many of them were suspended because the owner failed to pay a traffic ticket, and therefore, most of them were not taken from reckless drivers. In 2012, a whopping 88 percent of driver's licenses were suspended in Florida due to failure to comply with court summons or fines.

The other 12 percent?

Accidentally taking your golf cart onto the freeway, feeding meth to an alligator, feeding an alligator to a meth dealer, and being an alligator meth dealer... Florida.

The problem with this system is that losing one's driver's license can tremendously hinder one's life, like going to work. A 2006 report found that in New Jersey, 64 percent of the people who had their licenses suspended lost their jobs as a result. So it's a catch-22.

If you're thinking is there any way this whole situation could be made even worse? Relax. There is.

How? Private companies are now involved. These private probation companies supervise those who have committed minor offenses, charging them additional fees for their services. They make back the money for the courts without charging them a dime.

The problem is — that money is a lot like Wendy's chili. It's fantastic to have just as long as you don't think about where it came from.

That's because when people owe outstanding fees and are handed over to these probation companies, any money they send in gets distributed first to the monthly service fee rather than the court fine, putting them in "a hamster wheel of hell."

One woman who originally owed $41 for a ticket ended up paying nearly $300 in service fees over the course of months, while the company never put any of it toward the ticket.

So if you have money, the state's slogan is Click It or Ticket, but if you don't, it should really be Buckle Yourself or Go F*ckle Yourself.

And that's not even the worst of it. Owing money for a minor violation can ultimately send you to jail.

One man named Tom Barrett, a veteran who stole a $2 can of beer, was turned over to Sentinel Offender Services, who slapped an ankle monitor on him that cost $360 a month. Unable to keep up with the payments, Barrett ended up in jail three times over a $2 can of beer.

Locked up three times over one can of beer. That is not justice; that's the plot of a Southern Les Misérables. I dreamed a dream I stole a Coors, and then some assholes put me in jail.

The most bizarre part of this whole system is that municipalities think they're saving money by working with probation companies, but locking someone up is actually expensive. In the case of Barrett, who was in jail for 60-70 days, it cost the municipality about $3,500... over a $2 can of beer.

All of this takes us full circle back to Harriet Cleveland, because her story encompasses everything the segment has covered — she failed to pay tickets, got her license suspended, had to keep driving to keep her job, got caught driving without her license, got ticketed again, and had her fines handed over to JCS (a probation company). Like others, Cleveland ended up paying service fees that were never applied to her fines, lost her car as a result, and even had her utilities shut off because she was handing all her money over to the probation company. Eventually, she landed in jail.

Oliver, visibly angry, emphasizes that he's not excusing people who break the law. "It's not about being soft on crime," he explains.

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 f*ck barrel.

Oliver closes his segment by playing a video showing a diverse group of Americans who admit to the municipal violations they've committed. The narrator says:

We're all Americans, and we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but sometimes in that pursuit we also need the right to f*ck up once in a while without it destroying our lives.

The clip ends with Oliver's battle cry for the segment: "Shut down the f*ck barrel!"

Watch the entire segment below.

Images: Last Week Tonight With John Oliver/YouTube