How big government hurts the poor and crushes the innocent
The criminal justice system in the United States is a prime example. Laws that were intended to protect the public and punish offenders have instead perpetuated the cycle of violence and kept more people locked up.
Take, for example, Iowa’s voting rights law.
Right now, Iowa broadly bans individuals with a felony conviction from voting. This is counterproductive. Restoration of voting rights is a crucial part of reintegrating the formerly incarcerated into society. It is a good thing for all of us when the formerly incarcerated are released, find work, and become involved in their communities.
All of these activities help reduce prison reentry rates and improve public safety. In that way, withholding the right to vote doesn’t benefit public safety but may actually harm it.
Indeed, as my colleague Arthur Rizer, the R Street Institute’s director of criminal justice and civil liberties, wrote, “In every other state in the nation, individuals with past convictions can vote; and, in each of those jurisdictions, the sky did not fall, crime did not rise, and democratic bodies were not overtaken by ‘criminal record’ voters.”
Thankfully, Iowa is considering legislation that would restore voting rights for people convicted of felonies.
One piece of legislation would amend the Iowa Constitution to restore the right to vote for those with felony convictions. The other, however, would condition that right on repayment of restitution. Thankfully, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has emphasized her support for the restoration of voting rights.
In a similar way, our broken bail system often incarcerates the poor, not the dangerous or flighty, before trial.
As R Street fellow Lars Trautman writes, “The right to be free from excessive bail is enshrined in the 8th Amendment of the Constitution, yet this fundamental protection has failed to prevent the pretrial detention of hundreds of thousands of people every year who are unable to afford bail.”
Indeed, a Baltimore study found that the average bail for low-risk defendants was $51,000, while the average income for the areas from which most of those jailed came was half that amount. Remember: This is for those held awaiting trial. These people are presumed innocent.
By unnecessarily incarcerating those awaiting trial, the criminal justice system takes more than just their freedom to move as they please.
Pretrial detention costs taxpayers $13.6 billion annually. Those awaiting trial in jail cannot work and may even lose their jobs. Once again, the poor are punished the most. They are the ones who cannot afford bail and who will be hardest hit if they lose their jobs while awaiting trial.
There are lawmakers working to reduce excessive bail and end unnecessary pretrial detention. Legislation recently introduced by Rep. Jerry Nadler and Sen. Brian Schatz takes aim at excessive bail and fines. But there is much more work to be done.
Outside the criminal justice system, there are many more laws and government policies that do more to keep people down than help them succeed.
One of the more egregious examples is the removal or suspension of occupational licenses for those who fall behind on student loan payments. Removing their licenses means that these hardworking graduates can no longer work in the profession they know best and in which they presumably earn the most money. Many states are changing this practice, but these laws have already done quite a bit of damage.
While occupational licensing has its place for some professions, it often raises prices and prevents the poorest from being able to work.
This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be any licenses, but there is plenty of excess and little data to support their existence. Across the country, one can find government-required licenses to blow-dry, braid, and shampoo hair, arrange flowers, give tours, and much more. Many of these professions stay regulated due to industry lobbying.
Beyond occupational licensing, the government can also take away your driver’s license for unpaid debt. That debt stems from different sources, including unpaid parking tickets, toll fines, child support, and more. Considering that 86% of the public drives to work, removing their ability to get to work is not going to help these people repay debts.
To be clear, repaying debts is important. But removing the ability of people to make money to do so is both cruel and counterproductive.
If we take away someone’s ability to work, it should be because his work has harmed people. If someone is in jail awaiting trial, it should be because they are potentially too dangerous to be let out before trial. Too often, however, people lose their ability to vote, work, drive, or stay out of jail only not because they are a risk but because they are poor. This is the folly of big government gone awry.