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A Rising Chorus of Texas Leaders Calling for Reform of Excessive Court-Imposed Fines and Fees

This blog post was written by Right on Crime research associate Jace Waechter.

In Texas, revenue from fines such as parking or traffic violations generated over $1 billion dollars for the state. Some individuals were able to afford the fines and court costs. However, failure to pay excessive court-ordered fines and fees has resulted in 640,000 defendants behind bars – passing the burden onto taxpayers.

During his State of the Judiciary address in February 2016, Texas Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht denounced this practice stating, “Jailing criminal defendants who cannot pay their fines and court costs— commonly called debtors’ prison—keeps them from jobs, hurts their families, makes them dependent on society, and costs the taxpayers money.”

According a report published by the Texas Fair Defense Fund and Texas Appleseed, it costs $60 a day for correctional housing of a defendant. If each of the 640,000 defendants only spent one day in jail, the cost would exceed $38 million. This figure is likely to be on the low end, however, since many defendants spend more than 24 hours in jail. Such procedures shift law enforcement resources away from more serious crimes because of the time it takes to locate, arrest, and jail each individual who did not pay their fine.

Justice Hecht is joining a growing coalition to reform the imposition of court-ordered fines and fees. For instance, House Bill 1125, carried by Representative James White, R-Hillister, would prohibit the detention of defendants for certain unpaid fines. Representative Diego Bernal, D- San Antonio, signed on as a joint author, making HB 1125 a bipartisan effort.

“It’s very problematic when we’re confining people who cannot pay,” White told the Texas Observer, “We’ve got constitutional issues, cost issues, and compassion issues.”

Another bill, which gained bipartisan support in the legislature—including from Representative White—is House Bill 351. This bill proposes to allow judges to determine if a defendant is indigent during sentencing, rather than wait for the defendant to default on court fees and costs and then determine indigence, as is the practice now.

This echoes Justice Hecht’s proposed solutions in his judiciary address, which called for judges to “determine whether a defendant is actually unable, not just unwilling, to pay a fine. A defendant whose liberty is at stake must be given a hearing and may be entitled to legal counsel. For the indigent, the fine must be waived and some alternative punishment arranged, such as community service or training.”

Furthermore, the Texas Constitution states in Article 1 Section 18 that “No person shall ever be imprisoned for debt.” However, this has not prevented the de facto establishment of a debtor’s prison in Texas. Jailing indigent defendants for unpaid fines is an unnecessary, expensive, and indeed, unconstitutional practice—especially when more cost-effective alternatives are available.

Instead of tying detention to an individual’s ability to pay, law enforcement resources and corrections facilities should focus on individuals that pose the greatest threat to our community. Serious efforts by lawmakers and concerned citizens alike are required to reform these ineffective procedures.

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