Guest Op-Ed By Udi Ofer
The arrest of Princeton University professor Imani Perry for unpaid parking tickets earlier this month is an example of the unfairness of using the criminal justice system to enforce minor offenses.
Why in the world are police departments – in Princeton as well as other municipalities in New Jersey –requiring officers to arrest and handcuff motorists over unpaid parking tickets? Is it really keeping the community safer to imprison these “scofflaws” for failing to pay $50 fines?
We all understand parking meters are a source of civic revenue to help fill the city’s coffers. No one wants to pay a fine. But it makes no sense to treat the failure to pay two parking tickets as a criminal
matter by issuing an arrest warrant and handcuffing and humiliating individuals.
What happened to Professor Perry is an example of the hyper-aggressive enforcement of low-level offenses – offenses that should not as a general rule require arrest or detention. And the data show that it is communities of color that disproportionately face the brunt of the criminal justice system’s enforcement of low-level offenses.
The ACLU-NJ in December published a multi-year study documenting the enforcement of low-level offenses – disorderly conduct, loitering, trespass and possession of small amounts of marijuana – in four cities. It compared arrest demographics with population and showed that in each city, for the four minor
offenses, blacks were 3 to 10 times more likely to be arrested than whites.
The arrests and convictions for these minor offenses have collateral consequences that could include the loss of a job, loss of a home, and even loss of custody of children, as well as a criminal record that could follow you for the rest of your life, making future employment difficult.
Professor Perry has stopped talking about what happened to her. After the social media backlash she experienced, it’s hard to fault her. Her arrest, however, raises crucial issues that we all must reckon with.
It’s time to stop criminalizing minor infractions like failure to pay a parking fine. Low-level offenses pose virtually no harm to the community. Criminal enforcement of these offenses, however, can lead to escalation between a police officer and a member of the community in confrontations that have turned deadly in the past, as we saw with Eric Garner, who was killed during a confrontation with the NYPD that began as an arrest for selling loose cigarettes.
The police in Princeton appear to have followed policies and procedures in arresting Professor Perry. The question remains, however, whether the policies they followed are appropriate or not. For the ACLU of New Jersey, the answer is no.
New Jersey should change its policies and not issue arrest warrants for something as minor as two unpaid parking tickets. While it appears that several warnings had been sent in the mail, there are other additional mechanisms in place, outside of the criminal justice system, to ensure that people pay their fines. Municipalities can use collection agents rather than hoisting the burden of enforcing parking violations on police officers, who have more significant matters to attend to. Or in this instance, they could have put a boot on the car until the fine was paid rather than humiliating and potentially harming a community member by taking away her liberty.
The criminal justice system can’t be the solution to every problem. It’s certainly not the solution here.
Udi Ofer is the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.