Texas Considers Non-Jail Options for Those Unable to Pay Fines

By Associated Press
Sunday, June 11, 2017 at 12:25 PM CDT

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AUSTIN, Texas — Texas locks up more people who can’t afford to pay tickets and fines than any other state.

That could change if Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signs off on bipartisan bills that would require judges to offer alternatives such as community service, payment plans or waivers.

Ninety-five percent of warrants issued in Texas last year were for fine-related offenses, and more than 640,000 people spent at least one night in jail, according to the Texas Judicial Council, which sets policy for the state’s judicial branch. At an average of $60 per night per inmate, it cost counties significant money to jail offenders rather than find cheaper — or even profitable — alternatives.

Texas judges can already opt for an alternative to jail for people who can’t pay their tickets and fines, but they rarely do so, allowing community service in just 8 percent of cases last year and waiving the fines in half that amount, according to the judicial council. Under the current legislation — the state Senate and state House passed similar measures — judges would be required to ask in court about a person’s ability to pay a ticket and to present alternatives to those who can’t.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Democrat from Laredo who authored her chamber’s version of the bill, said it was “of extreme importance for low-income people” that the changes become law.

“If a person can’t pay, it spirals from a low-level to high-level problem,” said Zaffirini, noting that people often lose their jobs during such jail stints.

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Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo. (AP Photo/Harry Cabluck, File)

The judicial council’s executive director, David Slayton, also supports the proposed changes, which he said would encourage people to pay their tickets in installments or perform community service. Most people who don’t pay their tickets also don’t appear for their court dates, but the legislation would require judges to send notices that offer alternatives to paying in full and that serve as warnings before an arrest warrant is issued.

“Our belief is that people don’t go to court because they think they’ll automatically get jail time if they can’t pay,” said Slayton.

Marc Levin, who heads the Center for Effective Justice and Right on Crime for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Austin, said the changes would save taxpayers the expense of jailing so many people.

“This is consistent with our views of personal responsibility and limited government,” said Levin.

But Republican state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who voted against the measure, said it did not adequately consider “personal responsibility” and that it provided too much leeway for judges to completely waive fines.

“Current law already allows a court to work with indigent defendants who are truly unable to pay court imposed fines,” said Bettencourt, a Houston Republican.

Abbott has until June 18 to sign or veto the bills, or he can do nothing and automatically allow them to become law.

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