I had a strange little encounter a few years back when I had to get my passport renewed. In Ireland, a Garda or a Justice of the Peace must sign and stamp your application form before you submit it. I had been living in my current home for twenty years by that point and the Garda Station was less than a mile away. The duty Garda looked at my form, looked at me and then said, "I can't sign that because I don't know you."
Sometimes on the radio news you will hear of a horrific murder of some kind and the piece will normally finish with the line, "The deceased is known to the Gardai!" This is a euphemism for some repulsive thug who regularly overnights in one of their many stations. So I asked the Garda that morning whether it was necessary to have a criminal record in order to get a passport.
For the vast majority of us ordinary citizens, a criminal is one who breaks the most obvious laws of any State. Extreme violence, murder and intimidation spring readily to our minds as good reasons to take those people off the streets. We fund big homes for them that we call prisons so when we hear that our prisons are full, we nod sagely and think, "Well at least those bad bastards are off the streets."
However, we are only half right. Only a little under a half of the eighteen thousand places in our jails are taken up with real criminals. Indeed, it would be true to say that the Irish State could accommodate many more real criminals if we could catch them. You see, over half of the poor souls behind bars here are there for not paying fines!!!
You can be jailed for not paying your TV license. A hungry Mother stealing a sliced pan for her children could end up in the slammer. Failure to repay a bank loan in full could see you behind bars. Mind you, the bankers can rob all of us and they get a bonus for it, but don't get me started on that.
Of the reasons for non-payment of anything, I think top of the list must be a lack of money to do so. Surely that alone accounts for ninety per cent of non-payments? For the other ten per cent, there might be a moral principle for not paying up or some dispute about the terms. But basically, if you don't have it, you can't pay it. Lose your job and then see after twelve months what you can afford to pay for. And for the life of me, I cannot see how six months in jail is going to make it more possible for the individual to pay the bill/fine when they get out. Your jail sentence comes with a criminal record when you leave. Think of it as your qualification to ensure you never get employed again.
This takes us naturally to the Gardai and the Courts. The poor Garda now has a list of new things called crimes giving him or her a reason to arrest almost any of us at any time. Think of motoring and all the reasons they have to pounce on you. Once in the court system it is anyone's guess what can happen. Our courts need to justify their existence and pay their overheads so you can understand why the pompous judge might arbitrarily dispense fine after fine to the queue of silent defendants. Non-payment of these fines though is viewed as contempt of court and for any pompous judge, that is most heinous indeed. You find out how heinous when you are back before him for round two.
A family member who plied his trade in the judicial system once explained to me that the courts and the laws have nothing to do with right and wrong. Laws are there to serve the laws and courts exist to serve the courts, no other reason. Crime is defined as breaking one of our hundreds of laws and the only matter to be considered then is a punishment, never mind right or wrong. Inability to pay is no excuse for not paying because the black and white law dictates that you must pay regardless. So for any non-payment, the issue to resolve is the punishment and that is where our overcrowded prisons come in.
If a speeding charge fines you an amount you don't have and worse than that, it puts you off the road for a year, rendering it Impossible for you to get to work, then it is likely that you will be back before the beak again before too long. Your circumstances will escalate out of control and all because you don't have enough money to pay. The "Criminal Record Certificate" you'll get when once again free will see back again for more porridge. It is all so self-defeating and depressing.
And comically, when you finally decide to try to make a new life for yourself in another country, the Garda at the station WILL know you but because he does, he won't stamp your passport application either. That folks is justice in action.