Imprisoning citizens for fun and profit

"Do you think that we want those laws to be observed? We want them broken. There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power the government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws."

That was Dr. Ferris, of Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged," describing to industrialist Hank Reardon why they were persecuting him, and how government criminalizes innocent citizens.

Sadly, it's no longer fiction. Salt Lake City's KSL reports:

It was a shocking experience for Dena Long-Christensen, sitting in a cell in the Salt Lake County Jail for nearly two weeks among people charged with serious crimes.

Her cellmate, for example, was spending time on charges of aggravated assault. Long-Christensen's crime? Selling flower baskets from her home...

...A four-month investigation by KSL-TV discovered Long-Christensen's case is but one of several examples of questionable activities inside city-run justice courts, which operate outside the purview of the state's judiciary. Critics of the justice courts cite examples of judges issuing random rulings, sidestepping normal rules of jurisprudence and sometimes doling out harsh punishment for relatively minor infractions...

...The courts operate with virtually no oversight beyond that of the sponsoring cities, which rely on the courts as municipal cash cows, generating millions of dollars in fines and fees every year.

Kimberly Beazer's case is one example. She believes the court tried to coerce her into pleading guilty and paying a $200 fine instead of getting her day in court...

...The money generated by these courts runs into the millions of dollars, according to the most recent report on justice court revenue for fiscal year 2010. Last year, justice courts collected nearly $60 million from fines. The top five cities and counties with the most money raised through justice court include Salt Lake City, West Valley City, Sandy, Davis County and Utah County respectively. The five combined totaled more than $16.5 million.

According to Utah statute, if a city or county does not have an established justice court, the money collected from misdemeanor offenses are split with half going to the city or county and half going to the state. But if a city or county establishes its own justice court, all revenue collected stays within the municipality.

"The justice courts are extremely profitable. There is a financial motive for keeping these courts," Hart said...

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