Money before Dignity
Her father was dying, but Maria wasn't allowed to leave the state to go visit him. Not because Maria did not want to see him, or that she did not have family who were going to help her get to him, but because she was on probation and owed court fines and fees and restitution. Her father died and she did not get to say her goodbyes.
When I met Maria she was in her early 40's, had a loving husband and two daughters. She had been on anti-psychotic meds for a number of years and they had been working for her. But when her clinic closed due to lack of funding, she was not able to afford her medication. Without the meds, she was unable to fight the demons of mental illness and she started a fire. While no one was hurt, she was charged with arson, plead guilty and received 5 years of probation. The conditions of her probation included staying on her meds (which a new clinic provided) paying for probation, paying the court costs, and paying restitution. The court knew, probation knew, everyone knew that she was unable to work due to her mental illness. That didn't stop the court from ordering her to pay. It didn't stop probation from hounding her at every appointment to get a job to make the payments despite her doctor's advice that work would cause her stress and complicate her mental health.
Maria made payments of $20 per month every month for five years. That $20 was all she could afford. It was not enough. Maria's father, who lived in South America, became ill. She wrote to him, and talked to him on the phone. She asked probation if she could have permission to leave the state to visit him. She was told that if she could afford a plane ticket, she could afford to pay off her probation costs first. Maria's family was willing to send her a ticket, but they did not have money for both a ticket and her court costs. Probation gave her only one option: PAY. If she couldn't pay, she couldn't leave. Maria was not at her fathers side when he passed away. She was not able to attend the funeral. She was not able to be with her family to grieve.
One year later, Maria's mother got sick. Maria had almost competed her probation sentence, but still she was not allowed to leave the state to visit her mother. Maria did not want to go through it again. She called me, her lawyer, for help. She didn't ask for help when her father was ill and she planned to do everything she could this time. We prepared for court. We gathered the hospital records, her financial records, and her probation track record. Even though she had made every appointment, had paid the same amount every month, she failed the one condition that seemed to matter most – to pay for it all. The probation department filed a notice to extend probation to give Maria more time to pay. I asked her probation officer if he knew what was going on in Maria's life. He said he knew, but it was office policy not to end probation until all fees were paid and to ask for extensions until the court debt was paid. We set the case for a hearing. The judge listened to my argument and put his hand up and said "Stop". He turned to Maria and said "Ma'am, you don't need to do this anymore. You are done. Go take care of your mother, she needs you". That simple act of listening and hearing and seeing Maria as a person, restored her dignity. She cried, and quietly thanked everyone – even her probation officer.