According to 1995 crime statistics, Netherlands incarcerated (civic quarantine), 49 citizens per 100,000 of its population. Germany came in at 80 per 100,000, France, 84, and England, which is much less tolerant, had 93 offenders behind bars for every 100,000 citizens.
Which country had the highest rates? An Arab state? An obscure republic of the former USSR? Or some banana dictatorship? Well, no. The leader of the pack was the United States of America: 519 black sheep for every 100,000 inhabitants! In short: point five percent of its population were in prison in the mid-nineties—an industrialized country where the gap between rich and poor is the greatest (which hasn’t improved since).
Canada came in second, far behind the US, but still leading the pack with 116 prisoners per 100,000. Misleading data, perhaps. One would need to look more closely at the reasons for such incarcerations… But still!
We could say that we live an anonymous and mechanical existence in North America. I barely know my neighbours. It has always been like that, no matter where I lived. But what difference does it make?
The Bad “Good Samaritan”
An anecdote rubs shoulders with a millennium. It concerns Jean, a friend of mine—nothing more. His girlfriend is expecting a child, their first child. She needs a vehicle, so I offer mine—a Dodge convertible. He has a new job. My offer of a Cabriolet in the middle of summer—hard to refuse. My happiness is elsewhere. It has nothing to do with this object, place or being. It’s a relief to rid myself of the twenty-five hundred pounds of steel that I move daily from one parking spot on one side of the street to the other to let the civic hygiene brooms pass.
But that day Jean was in a hurry. An important meeting with the monks of the federal office that employs him. The butterfly glues its wings to a canvas. The asphalt referees (traffic cops) monitor the speed of cars on one end of the street (low speed zone) and charge the offenders. For a while, the traffic calms down and it replenishes the city’s coffers.
Except with Jean. He forgets about his outstanding tickets. Over the past ten years, he’s been racking up parking fines with the talent of a bulimic squirrel. The tickets lie dormant—an oblivion of his life, along with the interest that’s been piling up.
Verification of records. The cop that pulls him over finds an arrest warrant issued against his person, from several years back, for those outstanding parking tickets. Note, we didn’t look for him more than we should have. His new job is in a para-governmental organization. Anyway, the car’s towed, Jean’s handcuffed, then incarcerated. He’s allowed his famous right to make a phone call.
However, unlike someone who committed a theft, a rape, a tax offence or sped through a red light, no one’s harmed or endangered, it just a matter of parking tickets. If we can talk about the term offender, can we also talk about being a criminal? And act like one?
Offence by Delegation
Jean’s little world of contacts raises the sum—several thousand dollars, which also includes interest accumulated. My vehicle is in the penalty box for one month, with daily storage charges payable in full within a week of the due date. It amounts to several hundred dollars. If I don’t pay, the car’s off to the auction. I’m told that I am guilty of lending my car to an individual who does not have a valid driver’s license—Jean’s license having been suspended because of his tickets. I’m told a mechanism was in place, allowing anyone to get this information by phone. This is all relayed to me in a very plain typewritten letter (imagine a complaint officer on Prozac with a keypad).
The law that prevents a delinquent ticket payer from using their vehicle makes sense. And we must consider those wishing to cheat the system, along with a phone number available to vehicle owners to inform them about people under licence suspension. And I also know that ignorance of the law is no excuse. But to punish blindly, is to forget why such laws are created.
I appeal. I invoke my good faith: I was helping a couple expecting a child. Is ignorance of a new law impertinent when it concerns my Cabriolet convertible being locked up for six months? Not to mention the fact that Jean did not lose his right to drive because of drunkenness, speeding or ignoring red lights. He’s guilty of offences committed while a vehicle’s parked, which wasn’t even mine!
Appeal dismissed. The answer, written in advance, flatly recites the law. The spirit of the law no longer exists, it seems, when offenders and officials are complete strangers. I should have gone before a judge and established human contact, a lawyer advised me. (It reminded me of a passport application that was rejected because I had included a cheque. When I sent my application back, it was rejected once again. This time there was a problem with the photo signature, a problem that existed in the first application. I should have put my heart into it, as they say).
Add two new black sheep into the statistics.
According to you, was I guilty?