We shouldn’t put people in jail for owing fines.
In January, state Rep. James White, R-Hillister, filed House Bill 1125, which would ban Texas judges from jailing people for an offense that is punishable only by a fine. State Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, soon signed on as a joint author. On Thursday, White also filed House Bill 3729, which would require courts to ask whether a defendant can afford to pay a fine and offer alternatives to payment.
Bernal said representing a district with people from different socioeconomic backgrounds made him realize how a simple traffic ticket could dramatically affect someone’s life. HB 1125 would “level the playing field” and “give people some dignity,” he said.
Thousands of Texans are at risk of being arrested at any given moment for not paying fines related to traffic offenses or other city ordinance violations, according to a recently released report by Texas Appleseed and the Texas Fair Defense Project. Those who can’t afford to pay often find themselves hit with additional fines or other restrictions such as being blocked from renewing their driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations.
More than 200,000 Texans can’t renew their licenses and approximately 400,000 have holds on vehicle registrations due to unpaid fines, according to the report. In 2015, almost 3 million warrants were issued in cases where the punishment was originally just a fine.
“What happens is that the current system is counterproductive, and it drives people further into debt because they’re accumulating more tickets for driving illegally and on top of those tickets are all of the costs and fees that start snowballing as well,” said Mary Mergler, criminal justice project director with Texas Appleseed. “So it drives people further into debt … and impedes people’s abilities to make a living.”
Courts generally don’t offer alternatives to jailing or ask about a defendant’s ability to pay, the study found. In 2015, judges rarely used community service to resolve “fine-only” cases – just 1.3 percent of the time. In fewer than 1 percent of cases, they waived fines or reduced payments owed because the defendant couldn’t afford to pay, according to the study.
Many drivers feel a sense of helplessness related to paying off their mounting fines, said Emily Gerrick, a staff attorney with the Texas Fair Defense Project.
“It’s very easy for people to accumulate thousands of dollars in ticket debt even if they’re not bad drivers, just because they have to get their kids to school, they have to go to the doctor,” she said. “There’s no choice but to drive, so they’re going to keep getting these tickets and then eventually, what ends up happening is they get their warrant, they go to jail.”
That kind of disruption puts families, jobs and housing at risk, studies and individual accounts have shown.
“They’re usually very distressed,” Gerrick said, describing clients behind bars. “I’ve had them not know where their kids were when I saw them.”
Mergler added that the situation undermines, rather than improves, public safety.
“People with outstanding warrants who are afraid of being arrested on those warrants are inclined to avoid contact with law enforcement, whether that’s to report a crime or even to ask for help when they themselves are a victim of crime,” she said.
I agree with this, and I agree that we should not jail people for having unpaid fines. I’m sure there are some exceptional circumstances under which jailing is the best option, but it should be the exception and not the rule. Otherwise, people should always be given alternative means of complying – payment plans, community service, some other means that people smarter than I am can come up with – and should not have additional violations and fines piled on top of their existing ones if they are in the process of paying them off. It’s not justice, and it’s not right. I support these bills and I hope to see them become laws.
(By the way, that same argument at the end of this story, about how this situation undermines public safety, is basically the same argument made by police chiefs and sheriffs against so-called “sanctuary cities”. Just wanted to point that out.)