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The bigger debtors’ prison problem

It’s not just Harris County.

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Last week, an Amarillo attorney released documents that he said showed the city jailed disabled people simply because they were unable to pay municipal fines. According to the Amarillo Globe-News, the victims of this apparent debtors’ prison system include “a disabled veteran on social security who owed $539; a woman living on $490 a month from social security disability who owed $520; and a woman living on $723 a month in disability benefits who paid $16 of a $225 fine.”

As we wrote last week, debtors’ prisons are supposed to be illegal, and it’s been that way for a long time. According to the Marshall Project: “Jailing the indigent for their failure to meet contractual obligations was considered primitive by ancient Greek and Roman politicians, and remains illegal and unheard of in most developed countries. Under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, the practice is listed as a civil-rights violation.” America officially outlawed debtors’ prisons in 1833, and in 1983 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that judges could not jail someone simply because they couldn’t afford their fine unless they were found to have “willfully refused” to pay. The ambiguity of the phrase “willfully refused,” however, has left poor people in Texas jails from Austin to El Paso.

In May, an Austin American-Statesman investigation revealed that Texas’s capital city frequently jails people who can’t afford to pay traffic tickets. One was a single mother of seven. Unable to get herself out of debt, she was jailed, while pregnant, for owing traffic fines. She lost her job while in jail, was released, and was jailed a second time because she was unemployed and still couldn’t pay. Another was a 31-year-old mother of five who didn’t have a driver’s license, which she couldn’t afford until she paid off her traffic fines, thus ensnaring her in an endless loop.

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In May, a committee organized by Mayor Sylvester Turner released a damning report that found that the city uses its municipal court “as a profit center.” Of the court’s 169,000 convictions in 2014, only 2,800 were given the option to pay their fines through community service, and only six cases saw their fines waived. As the report notes, nearly 25 percent of Houston’s population is below the poverty line, and they estimated that “at least 30,000 people” should have been given the option of community service. “Attempting to finance the city budget on the backs of the poor criminalizes poverty and destabilizes lives, ultimately doing more harm than good,” the report found.

Later in May, the Houston Press highlighted the impact of the city’s broken system through the story of a woman who is the primary caretaker of her multiple grandchildren, can’t find consistent work because she is disabled following a series of surgeries, survives off of a base income of $390 a month in Social Security payments, yet has still served multiple jail terms due to unpaid traffic tickets.

West Texas appears to be rife with debtors’ prisons too. El Paso, a city of 680,000, issued 87,000 arrest warrants in 2014 for people who either missed their court appearances for traffic fines or other low-level cases, fell behind on payment plans, or didn’t finish community service, according to an October investigation by BuzzFeed News. El Paso made nearly $11 million each year from 2011 to 2014 solely off of fines for traffic violations and similarly minor infractions, accounting for four percent of the city’s general fund revenue.

During one of these municipal court hearings last fall, an El Paso judge told the crowd of inmates that they were there because “you don’t have money,” according to BuzzFeed. Another judge toldBuzzFeed that it would be “unfair to a rich person” to let poor people go because they couldn’t afford to pay fines. The same investigation also found that the city of Lubbock had jailed at least eight defendants who were clearly homeless for fine-only offenses like public intoxication or making too much noise. Under Texas law, it’s up to the judge to determine whether a defendant is indigent, and thus eligible for community service in lieu of jail time.

I’ve talked about this a lot lately, almost all in the context of Harris County. It’s not just Texas, it’s a national problem. There are a lot of problems that are hard to solve, but this is one that shouldn’t be. It’s a matter of choosing to do things differently.

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