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[The Korea Times] Demand grows for bank that supports those who can't afford fines(23.01.08)

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hrights
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2024-01-08 10:21
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기사원문



By Anna J. Park



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It's been nearly 10 years since Jean Valjean Bank, a nonprofit foundation, started lending financial help to those who can't afford to pay state-imposed fines or penalties in the country.Taking the bank's name from Jean Valjean, the iconic character from Victor Hugo's 19th century French novel "Les Miserables," the bank lends money to underprivileged people who face imprisonment for failing to pay modest fines or penalties imposed on them for mostly minor offenses.

Since being established in 2015 as a key campaign by the Citizens' Solidarity for Human Rights (CSHR), a civic human rights institution, the bank has so far helped 1,267 modern-day Jean Valjeans in Korea.

Petty offenders in dire financial need who are unable to pay fines or penalties can submit an application to receive up to 3 million won ($2,279). This bank is funded entirely by citizens' donations, declining any corporate or government sponsorship. The bank does not charge any interest or ask for any collateral for the money lent, relying only on trust.

Cho Yong-cheol, a researcher at the CSHR who is in charge of Jean Valjean Bank's operation, said that the bank was first established to address the underlying problems of the country's fine system.

"It has drawn attention that far too many people are imprisoned simply because they cannot pay fines. These people are not violent criminals, having committed mostly relatively minor crimes. But they face incarceration for failing to pay small fines, just because they lack money. Aiming to fix the vicious cycle, the CSHR has advocated for the introduction of an 'income-proportional fine system' and opposed indiscriminate imprisonment of those who are unable to pay fines," Cho said during a recent interview with The Korea Times.

"The examples of those who receive the support from the bank vary. A person who was fined 500,000 won for stealing a 2,000 won item, people who — in severe financial difficulties — saw an ad on social media and handed over their mobile SIM card to earn living expenses, but their cards were used in voice phishing crimes, resulting in a fine amounting to 3 million won. There are also many people who, struggling with long-term loan repayments, cry and seek forgiveness to bank officials demanding repayment of the loan, saying they don't have a single penny in their bank accounts," Choi illustrated.

While there are touching stories in which previous borrowers from the bank become donors themselves, lending financial support back to those who are in urgent need, Cho expressed concerns that the number of applicants to receive the bank's support has recently been on the rise.

He explained that the number of loan applicants last year stood at 773, which is more than double the 359 applicants of the previous year.

"With the government recently emphasizing strict law enforcement, the number of people going to prison for not paying fines has surged. Accordingly, the requests for loan support from Jan Valjean Bank more than doubled year-on-year from 2022 to 2023," Cho said.

He emphasized that it is crucial for the Korean government to introduce a more reasonable fine system like some European countries, where the amount of fines are proportionate to income and assets.

"The introduction of such a system would significantly reduce the number of people going to prison for unpaid fines in the country. This would also ensure a fairer imposition of fines based on individuals' financial capabilities, mitigating the current challenges faced by those unable to pay fines and helping to alleviate their immediate hardships," Cho highlighted.





 


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