Before municipal courts fine you for a traffic ticket or any other fine-only class C misdemeanor, a judge is supposed to consider whether you can actually afford the punishment. Under state law, if the judge decides you’re so poor you’ll never be able to pay off the mountain of fines, fees and additional citations that can accumulate because of that driving-without-insurance ticket you couldn’t afford to quickly pay off, he or she is supposed to give you some options – like a reduced fine or community service to get you out of the red.
That rarely happens in Houston, according to a report put out by a committee assembled by Mayor Sylvester Turner to study that and other criminal justice issues facing the city. That report (one of many Turner’s office made public last week after initially appealing to the Texas Attorney General’s Office to block their release) says that “the city uses its municipal courts as a profit center” that disproportionately punishes the poor “due to intense pressure from the City of Houston to collect as much revenue as possible.”
Of the 168,943 municipal court convictions in 2014, community service was offered in lieu of fines in only 2,759 cases, according to that report. That same year, fines were lowered or waived in only six cases. “Given that almost one-quarter of Houston residents live below the federal poverty line,” the report states, “our conservative estimate suggests that at least 30,000 people should have been eligible for community service – many more than the 2,759 who were given that option. Instead of community service, fines are levied against the poor.”
The punishment for fine-only crimes (like speeding or failing to register your vehicle) can range from minor irritation to life-altering depending on where you fall along the socioeconomic ladder. “For people with money, people who can afford to pay municipal court fines, tickets are a mild annoyance,” says Mary Schmid Mergler, an attorney with the nonprofit group Texas Appleseed (Mergler is currently finishing a report on Houston’s municipal court system). “For people who don’t have a lot of income, people who might have to decide between paying fines or making the rent, a single traffic ticket can lead them into this inescapable cycle of debt.”
Which, according to advocates, can lead to jail for people who not only won’t but can’t afford to pay off their fines – even though, as Mergler puts it, “state law as well as federal law is crystal clear that you cannot jail someone just for a failure to pay fines if they don’t have the ability to pay those fines.”
Data and records Mergler has gathered from the city in the course of her research show Houston municipal courts send people to jail for unpaid fines at an alarmingly high rate. Between the start of 2012 and the end of 2015, 12,132 people were jailed for failure to pay fines or to otherwise comply with a municipal court judge’s orders. That averages out to approximately 3,000 per year, or about eight per day. It's difficult to say exactly how many of those are because people could not afford those fines. But, according to Mergler, more than 1,000 were listed as "homeless."
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Municipal court officials declined a request for an interview, but in a prepared statement, Barbara Hartle, the Municipal Court Department's presiding judge, told the Press:
"Like Mayor Turner, we are reviewing the transition team recommendations. The goal of the Municipal Courts Department is to serve all of its constituents as fairly and efficiently as possible, and we are always looking for ways to improve municipal court services as well as to increase the access to justice for all constituents. To that end, we are eager to participate in continued dialogue with the Administration and will also implement any modifications that may be requested."
Tarsha Jackson, the Texas Organizing Project’s Harris County director, sat on Mayor Turner’s transition team studying criminal justice issues. She calls Houston’s municipal courts a modern-day debtor’s prison in which people are sent to jail because they can’t afford fines. In the 1990s, Jackson said, she herself was arrested in front of her kids for outstanding warrants on traffic tickets she couldn’t afford to pay and still feed her children or make rent.
Jackson says her organization is in the process of gathering stories of people who’ve cycled in and out of jail because of municipal court fees and fines they couldn’t afford. “There should be some system in place to work with people, but that didn’t happen with me,” she said. From the numbers she's seeing and the stories her organization is hearing, Jackson insisted "that's still not happening for people in municipal court here.”