blank.gif (51 bytes) Law and Order
Is Ebenezer Scrooge Alive And Well in Washoe County?
by Agent 008

n eight-page letter from a prisoner in the Washoe County Jail has come to my attention, and it is not especially comforting. On the second page, for example, one finds this:

These jailers harass you constantly, yell, cuss.... One day a person got two sandwiches instead of one, so [the] jailer locks everybody down [and] says, "You’re f---ing me—okay, everybody gets locked down." And much more....

The prisoner was originally sentenced to a DUI charge that appears to have been questionable at best, but what will interest Nevada taxpayers is not his original charge and sentence but the following paragraph in his letter:

Oct. 8, 1998. Today I got the shaft. On Monday the 5th I was supposed to pay $25 to Sparks Municipal Court but my son did not notify them that I was in jail. So the judge gave me an extra 25 days in jail for this.

This ugly business of automatically converting fines into jail time without regard to circumstances had been standard practice in Washoe County—but only until last summer when a suit successfully challenged the practice. Obviously a judge in Sparks continues to add jail time on prisoners’ sentences with no knowledge of relevant circumstances. Does anybody really approve of adding jail time to a sentence because a prisoner was behind bars and unable to appear in court?

Washoe County’s Workhouse

ast summer’s suit involved a prisoner who had been serving a six-month sentence which would have made him eligible for release on December 13, 1997. But he had also been fined $1,100 and when he was unable to come up with the money the fine was automatically converted into additional jail time. As a result the prisoner missed Christmas with his four children, and all because he didn’t have $1,100.

As attorney Terri Keyser-Cooper made clear in court, such a practice "unfairly penalizes the poor for simply being poor." Would anybody like to try to defend that practice before the Founding Fathers? In a written letter the plaintiff had requested that the jail release him to pay off the remainder of his fine but his request was denied—not by a judge or even by the Washoe County sheriff but by a deputy sheriff who explained to the prisoner that it was "policy to automatically convert fines into jail time" for those who cannot pay.

Meanwhile Reno’s newspaper, usually the last to discover mistreatment of citizens by government, was finally motivated sufficiently by the suit to do some investigating and discovered that automatically converting fines into jail time had been standard practice for cases coming out of Reno courts for the last two decades. Sergeant Bob Towery of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office confirmed for the press that it had long been standard practice to keep people in jail when they could not pay their fines.

Last summer’s suit was successful, but it appears that there remain some judges— including at least one in Sparks—who continue to believe that the poor should be jailed for longer terms than the rich, and for no better reason than the fact that they happen to be poor. In other words, Washoe County had been running not merely a county jail, but also a "debtors’ prison," which brings to mind a famous comment made 155 years ago by Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, the greatly beloved holiday tale by Charles Dickens.

At the beginning of the story Dickens wanted to underscore for readers that Scrooge was a singularly uncharitable man, a covetous skinflint. The story begins on Christmas Eve as Scrooge is leaving his office and is approached by a man seeking donations to help the poor.

Scrooge looks at the fellow impatiently and growls, "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? Let them go there!"

The rest of the story is the tale of Scrooge’s conversion from a life of selfishness and unconcern to one of charity and good will. But it seems that Dickens’ lesson in moral priorties still hasn’t penetrated the fatuous complacency one finds in certain nooks and crannies of today’s government. And rumor has it that Ebenezer Scrooge is alive and well in Washoe County, Nevada. NJ

Agent 008--a chap trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent--is an investigative reporter for Nevada Journal.


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