But the economics of debtors prisons don't work well on a large scale, particularly when operated and paid for by said sole Creditor. The expense of exacting the punishment for non-payment can easily cost more than it would have simply to reduce the debt for those who could not pay.
The City of Dallas is pondering a program to reduce unnecessary incarceration in the county jail for people who can't or don't pay traffic tickets, reports the Dallas News ("Plan to eliminate jail time for fine-only offenses could save Dallas $1 million per year," April 20):
A judge told the paper there are two kinds of defendants who end up in court for traffic fines - those who can't pay, and those who forget to do so. Is there really any public safety benefit from incarcerating either class of defendant at all?
The city of Dallas may open a 24-hour court to immediately process people arrested for many minor infractions, which could eventually save the city about $1 million a year.
Dallas Chief Municipal Court Judge Jay Robinson proposed the changes, likening the current situation to a "debtors' prison," because dozens of people arrested every day for not paying fines on tickets are often left languishing in the county jail overnight or even longer, waiting to see a judge.
He said the process mostly penalizes those with the least ability to pay fines and court costs.
"None of our crimes carry jail time," the municipal court judge said. "They're fine-only offenses. ... Does it make sense to imprison someone for a registration violation? That seems sort of ridiculous."
City officials are estimating that in time the city could save $1 million a year on the more than $6.8 million the city pays the county for the use of its jail facility.
The county jail's population could also fall, because fewer arrested people would be going to the jail, but the impact is likely to be minor. County officials say every little bit helps.
The types of violations the court would process are all from people arrested for Class C misdemeanor tickets – often when cited for three or more violations at the same time.
Others are taken into custody for failing to pay such tickets.
There's certainly little economic benefit. When people jailed for fines finally get to traffic court, "most received "time-served" sentences, meaning they don't have to pay fines and court costs," the paper reports.
The issue in the last several years reached a crisis stage because of massive new fines enacted in 2003, funds which go into the Orwellian named "Driver Responsibility Program." As a result, today an astonishing 10% of Texas drivers have outstanding warrants, and the county jails simply couldn't possibly jail every driver with debts to the state. (Overall, seventy percent of "Driver Responsibility" fines go unpaid statewide.)
Dallas' idea would reduce the procedural burden for processing excessively large fines and court costs from these minor offenses. Instead of supplying a deterrent for poor behavior that we want to reduce, both state and local government have come to rely on fine revenue for significant aspects of their budget.
Public safety goals are harmed when government comes to rely on fines for routine income because law enforcement's goal should be to reduce crime, but if crime goes down it generates a revenue crisis for the state.
I like Dallas' idea, and look forward to seeing more details about how it would work and what happens with fines under the new regimen.