Bi­par­ti­san plan pro­poses no jail for those who can’t pay fines

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY MERED­ITH HOFF­MAN

AUSTIN, TEXAS | Ernesto Car­doza has gone to jail three times be­cause he couldn’t af­ford to pay his traf­fic tick­ets, and it cost him dearly.

“I lost ev­ery­thing — my girl­friend left with my kids, and when I came out I had to start over,” the 34-year-old Dal­las crane op­er­a­tor said of his first stint of 30 days in 2005 for fail­ing to pay speed­ing tick­ets.

Texas locks up more peo­ple who can’t af­ford to pay tick­ets and fines than any other state, but that could change if Repub­li­can Gov. Greg Ab­bott signs 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 finere­lated 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.

“This is eas­ily the most sig­nif­i­cant re­form to Texas’ mu­nic­i­pal courts in a decade,” said Tr­isha Trig­ilio, a staff at­tor­ney for the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of Texas. “Un­der the bills, peo­ple who can’t af­ford to make a pay­ment would be guar­an­teed the op­por­tu­nity to be heard be­fore they’re put in hand­cuffs.”

The U.S. Supreme Court in the 1970s out­lawed so-called debtors pris­ons, find­ing it un­con­sti­tu­tional to jail peo­ple for not be­ing able to pay fines.

Sev­eral states, in­clud­ing Colorado, Wash­ing­ton, Ge­or­gia and New Hamp­shire, re­cently have passed leg­is­la­tion meant to re­in­force that ban, but more than a dozen states, in­clud­ing Texas, still ef­fec­tively de­tain peo­ple for not pay­ing what they owe.

Texas judges al­ready can 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 Ms. Zaf­firini, not­ing that peo­ple of­ten lose their jobs dur­ing such jail stints.

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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Bet­ten­court, a Hous­ton Repub­li­can.

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

Phil Telfeyan, who heads the Equal Jus­tice Cen­ter, cau­tioned that even if the Texas bills be­come law, they may not be enough be­cause he’s seen judges through­out the coun­try fail to honor such statutes.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

State Sen. Ju­dith Zaf­firini said it was “of ex­treme im­por­tance for low-in­come peo­ple” that Texas change laws so that the poor don’t go to jail for un­paid fines.

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