Bill to Prevent Debtors' Prisons in Texas Sent to Gov. Abbott's Desk

Every year, thousands of Texans are jailed because they can't pay traffic tickets. Thousands of others can't renew their licenses because they are unable to resolve surcharges on the original fines — which results in a cycle of more tickets and more fines, for driving without a license or insurance.

This year, however, lawmakers decided they wanted to do something about it.

Over the weekend, the bill intended to prevent debtors' prisons in Texas cleared its final hurdle and was finally sent to Governor Greg Abbott's desk Tuesday, where it awaits his signature. The bill, Senate Bill 1913 by Senator Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), includes various safeguards to ensure that municipal courts aren't making people pay fines they'll never be able to afford, ultimately resulting in warrants being issued for their arrest and jail stays due to poverty.

"These are people that are being jailed for low-level offenses or even just owing money to the court, and so it makes a lot of sense not to waste our public safety dollars on something that is really more of a debt collection matter," Matt Simpson, a policy strategist with the ACLU of Texas, told the Houston Press. "Along with that, this bill really addressed situations where people simply don't have the income to pay hefty fines to the court."

Under the bill, municipal judges would be required to evaluate people's ability to pay fines before ordering them when people are slapped with Class C misdemeanors, non-jailable offenses that include traffic tickets and infractions like letting your lawn grow wild or having dogs that won't stop barking. That way, if a person is below the poverty line or the fines are simply out of reach, the judge can lower the fines accordingly or instead order alternatives such as community service. And if a person still does not pay the revised fines or complete the community service, instead of just whisking a person off to jail on an arrest warrant for failure to pay or comply, judges would be required to hold another hearing to allow the person to explain his or her situation.

"The ball is really in the judges' courts now," Simpson said, "and they now have full authority to waive fines and move to payment plans, and not issue as many warrants. It gives judges a lot of leeway to do the right thing."

The debtors' prison problem has been well-documented in both Houston and Texas in various reports over the last year or so.

In Houston, after Mayor Sylvester Turner took office in January 2016, his criminal-justice transition team found that municipal judges offered community service as an alternative to fines in less than 2 percent of the roughly 169,000 cases, and fines were waived because of indigence for just six people.

In November 2016, the ACLU of Texas issued a report looking at the problem statewide and found that the vast majority of municipal courts in Texas failed to consider people's ability to pay fines before issuing warrants for their arrest for failing to pay up. Of the 766 courts the ACLU reviewed, the median rate at which courts adjusted people's fines and fees because of poverty was a whopping zero percent of cases. Taking a snapshot of Houston's municipal courts over a period of four months, the ACLU found that 21 percent of all people slapped with Class C fines in Houston were living in poverty. Of those sent to jail for failure to pay, 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. Another fifth of offenses were tied to what the ACLU calls "traffic poverty" — people ticketed for not renewing their licenses, having broken car parts or not having insurance.

And in February, the Texas Fair Defense Project and Texas Appleseed found that, in 50 Houston cases pulled at random, municipal judges did not consider ability to pay in a single case before jailing someone for failure to pay. The same report found that, across Texas, municipal courts issued 2.9 million arrest warrants for non-jailable Class C offenses — while issuing just 129,000 for Class A and B misdemeanor crimes.

Bills that would have outright abolished jailing people for failure to pay Class C fines didn't make it through the Legislature. Simpson said that the ACLU will continue monitoring how Zaffirini's SB 1913 works out, given that it doesn't necessarily require judges to stop jailing people for poverty but at least requires them to at minimum find out whether someone is poor first. The hope, Simpson said, is that the judges actually pay attention to those findings.

In Houston, the bill certainly would have helped Michael Wilson, who told the Houston Press in April that he was afraid to go to court to tell a judge he couldn't afford to pay off several traffic tickets he racked up in two separate incidents five years apart. Because he can't pay DPS the surcharges associated with his inability to pay the original tickets — stemming from failing to use a turn signal while driving without a license — he still can't get a license.

He was afraid to go to court, he said, because he didn't want to go to jail.

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