Michael Wilson had just got his first car when, that very same day, his driving record fell apart.
His mom had purchased the car in her name since Wilson, then 21, was in the middle of taking a driving course to obtain his license; he planned to finish it that week and then get car insurance, too. His mom wasn't feeling well that night, so she asked her son to take the new car for a new spin down the street, to the grocery store, and buy her some soup and medicine.
On the way home, minutes away, he saw the red and blue lights flickering in his rear-view window: He was getting pulled over for failure to use a turn signal — with additional tickets for driving without insurance or a license. As a result, Wilson was looking at nearly $700 in fines. And on fixed Social Security income because of his disabilities, brittle bone disease and muscular dystrophy, paying them off was far out of reach for Wilson.
“I didn't know what to do,” Wilson said. “I just couldn't pay it. It's not that I didn't want to. I couldn't.”
Michael Wilson is one of thousands of Texans every year who end up paying off their tickets behind bars rather than with cash. Two years after the traffic tickets, he spent one week in jail after he was picked up on warrants for failure to pay and failure to appear in court. And five years after the tickets, he is also one of thousands who cannot even obtain a driver's license or insurance because of the DPS Driver Responsibility Program, which punishes those who cannot resolve their tickets with license suspension and more surcharges, making the tickets even harder for poor people to pay off.
Now, though, as the Texas Legislature grapples with several bills that would address the debtors prison problem, the Texas Organizing Project is taking it up on the local level with Houston City Council, proposing a bill that would reform how destitute people are treated in municipal court.
“The whole idea is to not arrest people, especially indigent folks, on these traffic offenses — they are non-jailable offenses. They're for debt. And they should be handled like debt,” said Tarsha Jackson, executive director of TOP's Harris County chapter. “Police officers are currently acting like bill collectors, and they shouldn't be.”
TOP is proposing to require municipal judges to hold a full hearing into defendants' ability to pay a fine before imposing one on them. For people below the poverty line, fines would be reduced or tailored to the person's financial circumstances, and community service would also be offered as an alternative. And if someone still can't pay the altered fine amount or can't complete community service, instead of being whisked off to jail on arrest warrants, they would get another hearing before the judge to explain the situation.
“The question is, how can we create a system so that we're not using jail to destroy people's lives? Just for an unpaid fine,” said Jackson, who herself once spent a night in jail for failure to pay off traffic tickets during a rut of unemployment.
In Houston, it's not that community service or reduced fines are not already options. The problem is those options are offered sparingly and sometimes poor people aren't aware they can ask for them, according to recent research. After Mayor Sylvester Turner took office last year, his criminal-justice transition team found community service was being offered to people in less than two percent of the roughly 169,000 cases in Houston municipal courts, and fines were only waived due to indigence for just six people. Jackson, a member of the transition team, said TOP began thinking about the ordinance shortly afterward.
More recent research from advocacy organizations also suggests reform is needed in Houston: In November, the ACLU of Texas found that 21.2 percent of all people facing Class C fines in Houston are living in poverty. Of those sent to jail for failure to pay over a period of four months (more than 500 people), 30 percent were listed as homeless or not having an address — and 25 percent of the offenses they were jailed for were actually related to homelessness, such as loitering on a sidewalk. In February, Texas Appleseed and Texas Fair Defense Project reviewed 50 cases in Houston of people jailed for failure to pay, and found that in not a single case did a judge make a determination of ability to pay, as TOP's proposed ordinance would expressly require. (The Houston Municipal Courts did not respond to a request for comment.)
On the statewide level, the February report also found that Texas municipal courts issued more than 2.9 million arrest warrants for non-jailable, fine-only offenses in 2015. By contrast, only five percent of arrest warrants, or roughly 129,000, were issued for more serious Class A and B misdemeanor crimes.
“What's happened over time is Texas has created a system in which a single traffic ticket balloons into hundreds of dollars of debt, and that hundreds of dollars of debt can be something that a low-income person just can't get out from under and can result in them having to go to jail,” said Rebecca Bernhardt, executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project. “The courts just aren't using the alternatives that Texas law provides to help come up with a reasonable way to hold people accountable for their tickets.”
Various bills in the Texas Legislature would also tackle debtors' prisons, and one—HB1125 by State Representative James White—would end the practice of jailing people for unpaid fines altogether. Another, which passed through the House last week, would allow judges to order community service or even waive fines before waiting for a poor person to default on the payments, similar to TOP's proposed ordinance.
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Michael Wilson certainly could have benefited from any of these proposals.
Today, Wilson owes the City of Houston $1,400. A couple years ago, he got in a fender bender, resulting in hundreds of dollars in more fines for still having no license or insurance. He has simply given up, and has not gone to court to plead his case to a judge for fear that he will be arrested when he arrives. He still drives his car, though not without the fear that he could end up back in jail should he forget to signal a lane change.
“Every time I hear the sirens,” he said. “I think they're coming for me.”
*Update, April 4: Tarsha Jackson, who also spearheads a coalition of advocacy groups called Right to Justice, said more groups in addition to TOP have been pushing the ordinance. They include Texas Appleseed, ACLU, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Truth 2 Power, Texas Civil Rights Project, Service Employees International Union, Mi Familia Vota and United We Dream.