John Oliver gave a detailed breakdown of how municipal fines are enforced, collected and might ruin someone’s life during Sunday’s episode of “Last Week Tonight.”
The HBO host began with the story of Harriet Cleveland, a grandmother who accumulated several tickets she was unable to pay immediately. Cleveland was eventually arrested and incarcerated for ten days after the fines and fees mounted.
Oliver pointed out that a speeding ticket in Alabama costs $255. For a person making Alabama’s minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, it would take them 35 hours to make enough to pay off the ticket.
“The only justifiable you should lose an entire week of your life due to speeding is if you hit 88 miles per hour and go back in time,” Oliver said.
Oliver also highlighted findings in a recent Department of Justice report on the town of Ferguson, Mo., which has been in and out of the news for large scale protests after the death of unarmed black teen Michael Brown at the hands of police.
The report showed that officers would compete to write the most tickets, as municipal fines helped fund city services without raising taxes. Oliver even cited a recent study that showed certain municipalities receive as much as 66 percent of their revenue from the collection of fines.
“When that much of your budget comes from fines, you’re actually rooting for people to break the law,” Oliver said.
And much to Oliver’s chagrin, private companies are now a part of the equation.
Private probation companies agree to collect fines on behalf of municipalities at no charge, instead charging fees to the person paying the fines. One woman, Hali Woods, got a $41 ticket for not wearing a seatbelt. Unfortunately, any money she sent in to the company first went to paying the fees she had accrued, instead of the ticket.
Oliver then suggested that the slogan “Click It or Ticket” should be changed to “Buckle Yourself or Go Fuckle Yourself.”
Oliver also shared the story of Tom Barrett, a man who stole a can of beer who eventually ended up paying $270 in fines. On top of this, Barrett was incarcerated for nonpayment, which cost his city over $3,000 in order to house him for that time.
Oliver closed the segment with a plea to stop putting vulnerable citizens in what he called “the f–k barrel.” He even had a video segment with people sharing minor offenses they had committed, finishing with a call to #StopTheFuckBarrel.
Watch the video here.