Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The War on the Indigent with the Sword & Shield of Neoliberal Commodification

At the New APPS blog, John Protevi recalls

“a Dr. Who episode in which the cost of burying one’s relatives triggers a debt cycle leading to slavery. A parable of the Thatcherite takeover of the UK, it points to the Autonomia spin on the notion of ‘real subsumption,’ that is, the commodification of every social relation, even mourning. Which brings us to Monday’s Baton Rouge Advocate story, ‘East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner's Office to charge families for cremated remains.’

Families that turn over the bodies of loved ones to the East Baton Rouge Parish coroner for a pauper’s cremation will have to pay if they want the ashes returned. Coroner Dr. Beau Clark said his office will begin enforcing state laws that kick in when family members agree to a pauper’s burial, which means they sign over the rights of the body to the state because they cannot afford or refuse to pay funeral costs, Clark said....

Clark said he decided to begin enforcing the law after funeral homes approached him with a concern that people were choosing what they thought was a free cremation over paying a funeral home when families could afford funeral or cremation costs.

Three steps remain, but they won’t be long in coming: 1) billing the families whether they claim the ashes or not, 2) jailing those who can’t pay, and 3) placing them in Louisiana’s thriving private prison industry.”

This called to mind a sociological parallel courtesy of our criminal justice system, as I noted in my comment to John’s post:

The country’s social ethos under the regnant neoliberal ideology has darkened considerably, particularly from the perspective of someone like myself, who came of age during the (somewhat successful although it ended prematurely) “War on Poverty.” In many quarters a war on the indigent, especially the indigent accused or convicted of crimes is being conducted with the sword and shield of neoliberal commodification. I was astounded to learn recently that

“According to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice, states are increasingly imposing fees on indigent criminal defendants, including fees for the public defender. Pro Publica analyzed the report and noted that of the 15 states with the largest prison populations, 13 have provisions to charge defendants fees for exercising their right to counsel. In some of the states, the laws include mandates that specifically bar the court from waiving the fees, even for the poorest of defendants. And in Florida and Ohio, defendants must pay even if they are acquitted of the charges or have them dropped.”

For those not familiar with the sundry problems that continue to plague the constitutional right to counsel in our criminal justice system:

“The problem is that the fees arguably discourage individuals from exercising their constitutional right to an attorney. When defendants don’t exercise their right to public defenders, they frequently obtain the worst result possible. That’s the nature of an adversarial system. In additional, unrepresented defendants lead to wrongful convictions, over-incarceration and huge burdens on the courts, according to the report.”

This commodification seeps into every nook and cranny of the criminal justice system such that one is structurally predisposed to kick ‘em (alas, in some jurisdictions, literally and figuratively) while they’re down, as

“some of the fees don’t even end with the conclusion of the trial. Some states charge incarceration fees, prosecution reimbursement fees, probation fees, parole fees, drug testing fees. Naturally, most of the defendants don’t have the money to pay for any of this, and the fees continue to build over time. Making matters even more complex, in many states, when defendants don’t pay off their debts, they lose privileges, like voting and driving.”

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