As Hurricane Irma approached, south Florida turned into a scene of panic as residents rushed to get themselves and their families to safety.
Many evacuated, many stayed put and hoped for the best, and some sought shelter.
But in Polk County, Sheriff Grady Judd wasn’t worried about evacuees or how to keep them safe.
Instead, he was worried about jailing anyone who might have an unpaid traffic ticket or any other blemish on his or her criminal record.
“If you go to a shelter for #Irma and you have a warrant, we’ll gladly escort you to the safe and secure shelter called the Polk County Jail,” the sheriff tweeted as the storm approached — clearly sympathetically urging those in need of safety and shelter to get out of harm’s way.
“If you have a warrant, turn yourself in to the jail -- it’s a secure shelter,” another tweet of his urged.
While this sheriff is evidently fond of his social media presence, the same isn’t clear about his enthusiasm for public safety.
Let’s say a woman in Miami or elsewhere did have an unpaid speeding ticket.
Does she take herself and her kids to a shelter where Judd’s officers were waiting to swarm down on anyone who had a warrant?
Does she trust that a person with a warrant for, say, not paying a speeding ticket will be handled differently than a person with a warrant for a more serious crime?
Well, Judd’s own words couldn’t have given our evacuee much hope.
He was sending out tweets after tweets warning that the full weight of his office would be brought down on anyone with “a warrant.” To just about anyone, that would sound like there’s not going to be much distinction made about the underlying charges behind a warrant.
None of this should excuse the people who don’t pay their tickets.
If you get ticketed for speeding or any other relatively minor charge, you should pay your ticket.
But our jails, some say, have become debtors’ prisons.
Our criminal justice system is jailing people for not paying fines — even in cases where they cannot afford to pay them.
Just last week, the Bogalusa City Court and Judge Robert Black, as part of a lawsuit settlement, agreed going forward to determine whether defendants are financially able to pay fines and not to jail them if they cannot afford to pay.
The 2016 lawsuit pitted the Southern Poverty Law Center against the Bogalusa judge, who, the SPLC claimed, was essentially forcing defendants into debtors’ prison.
This, by the way, is a fundamentally unAmerican way of seeking justice.
In fact, it seems to have forsaken any pretense of seeking justice and instead just punishes by imprisonment anyone who doesn’t have enough money to pay the ridiculously high fines anyone who breaks a law can face.
“Under the settlement, the court retains the authority to impose appropriate sentences for criminal violations, including imposing immediate jail time at initial sentencing,” the SPLC said. “The Bogalusa City Court, however, will make a finding on the record to establish whether an individual is indigent at sentencing, and will make an explicit finding that failing to pay was willful before imposing jail time.”
So that’s a bit reassuring. In that one small city across the lake, a judge has agreed to actually determine one’s ability to pay before sending that person to jail for not paying.
For the rest of us, though, the whole thing should be a wake-up call, particularly Sheriff Judd’s emphasis on punishing the poor rather than ushering them to safety.
He seems to have gladly accepted his role as the henchman who rounds up the unfortunates and hauls them off to jail — even if they are trying to make sure their children can escape an approaching hurricane.
Well done, Sheriff Judd. Not many people would so thoroughly, publicly and proudly embrace the nastiest parts of human and government nature. But he managed to do just that, all with a Twitter account that, in a time of emergency, focused the sheriff’s attention not on protecting life or property but on filling his jail. Fines are more important than lives to one Florida lawman.
Editorial Page Editor Michael Gorman can be reached at 448-7612 or by e-mail at email@example.com.