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More reasons not to put people in jail

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.)

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6 Comments

  1. Bill Daniels says:

    I have seen this problem first hand in hiring people. They present a valid TX ID card, and you ask why they don’t have a driver’s license, and it’s because of unpaid fines. I can see exactly how that turns someone already poor into a 2nd class citizen, permanently, especially when you compound it with the “driver responsibility fees,” the huge fines assessed for years after the crime of driving with no license, or DWI, etc. You can sit out a traffic ticket in jail, and, at some point, it’s over, but the driver responsibility fees can’t be discharged this way, nor can they be discharged with hours of community service.

    Yes, there ought to be an approved way to allow people to perform community service in lieu of paying these fines. I think that would help some of these disenfranchised people re-enter society with a driving license. Unspoken in the article, though, is, there are always going to be people like Sandra Bland, that aren’t going to take responsibility for their actions by either fighting a ticket successfully, paying it, or doing community service. Some folks just aren’t going to do any of that, no matter what. Do they get a free pass to not be jailed? If there is no punishment, ever, then who would ever be stupid enough to pay a traffic ticket?

    That would make it on par with red light camera tickets. I haven’t gotten one, but if I did, because of shortened yellow lights (Lufkin, I’m looking at you), I wouldn’t pay, because there’s really no penalty to NOT pay.

    Having said all this, aren’t we constantly being told that “driving is a privilege, not a right?”

    Driving with no license is an arrestable offense, as it should be. I don’t really want to be on the road with someone with no license. Those people need to get arrested when pulled over, period. If this scares you because you are an undocumented immigrant, then take a bus or call Uber. I doubt very many of the undocumented drive with no license, because we know they are just here to work and are much more law abiding than US citizens, so arresting people driving without a license shouldn’t be a concern for the undocumented.

  2. Paul Kubosh says:

    If there is no threat of jail time then there will not be payment. For instance take the post compliance fee. That is a fee you don’t have to pay and they cannot collect it. City of Houston wrote hundreds of thousands of post compliance fees. This is a dumb idea. No consequences for any of your actions. A complete progressive agenda. The new moral majority.

    You got my head spinning stockman vs. this bill.

  3. Paul Kubosh says:

    Wrote off…..Fat fingers typing on a phone… Arghhhhh

  4. Steve Houston says:

    Paul is an expert in the field with more practical experience than most others. As he says, remove the threat of jail and compliance will drop. So exactly what consequences will replace the jail option under these progressive bills? Paying over time is an option the city of Houston has extended to a great many people over the years and guess what, it doesn’t change the fact that poor people don’t want to pay their fines. The city also offers community service but what do you do when the person convicted of some crime doesn’t show up for that? Then you have bleeding hearts that think low level community service tasks replacing fines should be compensated at rates no one on earth would hire someone for, we’re talking trash pick up or entry level work, the die hards from the left thinking should be $25 an hour. All that “no choice but to drive” BS ignores the fact that we don’t want uninsured, unlicensed, often terrible drivers getting a free pass or we wouldn’t have such laws. So please tell us what the “no jail, no paying a fine” options are before we support or deny support for such legislation.

  5. Ross says:

    I think part of the issue here is that some portion of the folks this would apply to are never told they have options, and certainly aren’t told that at the beginning. So, when they realize they can’t pay the fine immediately due to a lack of money, they skip their court date thinking they will be immediately put in jail, and end up with a warrant and then end up in jail anyway. I am not opposed to jailing people who don’t comply, once they’ve had a chance to make payments or do community service. I would also support an option for them to spend weekends in jail until the fines are worked off(I believe there’s a formula for that). That would prevent job loss.

    I also believe that offering some form of drivers license to illegal aliens would help all of us. They could legally drive, buy insurance, etc, but the license would not be valid as a form of ID in any other circumstance.

  6. Steve Houston says:

    Ross, I agree that jail shouldn’t be the default option and think most people would concur but that is not what the legislation provides for; it provides for a ban. And the numbers displayed sound quite damning but like all statistics, the people involved with this Bill are not telling the whole truth, that 1.3% only those who end up with an alternative, NOT all those who were offered it. And the 1% of fines waived or reduced doesn’t say much either; why should those offered community service get a smaller amount of time to work off? I’d ask an expert like Paul Kubosh exactly how often was one of his clients refused community service after proving indigence, a client who showed up on court dates and otherwise complied with all court mandates. I strongly suspect that even if the request wasn’t immediately granted, it was always on the table at some point before jailing the person.

    As far as the license, as an official government document, it would end up becoming a means of identification and I’m not sure what other use would be as problematic. Given all this talk of punishing cities and states over sanctuary policies, it would probably be stronger evidence of such than anything short of an edict of complete non-cooperation with federal authorities. Given the hostile environment towards illegals, I wonder if many would be rushing over to the nearest DPS office to acquire such a license in the first place, the belief of deportation growing with every rhetorical speech.

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