Thursday, January 12, 2017

Community service in Austin muni court no sweet deal

Payment counter at Austin municipal court
Grits was at the Austin municipal court today with someone who'd allowed a warrant to be issued for a traffic ticket when she couldn't pay. I'd convinced her that, as she was in fact demonstrably indigent, she could get the warrant withdrawn by agreeing to perform community service. That turned out to be true.

Working from a preset formula with no inquiry as to her individual circumstances, the judge demanded 37.5 hours community service for a $460 fine - nearly a full work week for a single traffic ticket. That's about $12.26 of the fine waived per hour worked. Given that the estimated value of volunteer time for nonprofits is nearly double that (vis a vis how much they can estimate its value as an in-kind contribution), plus the fact that indigent people tend to have transportation issues and family obligations that might make a full week of community service onerous, that ratio seemed low to me. I bet the low rate contributes to people not completing community service and having their warrants reissued.

For more background and context on the vagaries of community service at muni court, see ACLUTX's Know Your Rights brief on Traffic Tickets and other Class C misdemeanors in Texas.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

By law, a municipal court defendant who is assigned community service in lieu of fines and costs is "considered to have discharged not less than $50 of fines or costs for each eight hours of community service performed." CCP 45.049(e).

Your friend discharged $460/(37.5/8) = $98.13 for each eight hours of community service. So the judge let her discharge at nearly twice the minimum rate.

No good deed...

wolf sittler said...

"Working from a preset formula with no inquiry as to her individual circumstances".....this statement identifies one of the faulty cornerstones of our legal system that focuses on "one size fits all" punishment. This flies in the face of more nuanced responses to law breaking that highlight individual differences and needs, as noted in the House Corrections Committee interim report. While originally intended to deter crime, such broad brush policy has, instead, filled our jails and prisons with many who do not need to be there.....at great cost to everyone, except those who benefit financially from outmoded responses to "criminal" behavior.

Anonymous said...

I'd be curious as to what sort of service your friend did to get what amounts to double credit. Most community service work is not typically highly skilled, high paying work but things like picking up trash, janitorial work or other work that pays minimum wage to start so it sounds like she did get a bigger break than she could have.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@8:42/7:16, the minimum in state law is just that, a floor. She didn't get double credit, and was done no particular "good deed." She got what every other indigent defendant in Austin muni court gets. The fact that the value of the labor to the nonprofits receiving it is greater than the credit received by the laborer remains true regardless of the excuse for it. And observing that disparity doesn't "punish" muni court judges, that's flat out Orwellian. It's defendants being punished here, and by these lights they're being overpunished.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thinking more on it, this is similar in many ways to the property theft thresholds, which were increased in 2015 for the first time in two decades. Inflation had caused the old amounts to become outdated but weren't changed in the law for years, when really they should be more or less indexed to inflation.

In this case, an antiquated provision sets a dollar-amount floor, but localities have already adjusted it upward because it's obsolete in the 21st century economy. In the meantime, a formal valuation exists that's updated every year that could be used. I now realize the Lege needs to update CCP 45.049(e) to account for that.

Anonymous said...

Has there ever been an offender, from your perspective, who was "justly" punished for their offense?

Of course it was a rhetorical question. When I first came to work for a healthcare provider in the CJ system I eagerly read your blog and benefited from the reasoned perspective you often exhibited and the thoughtful responses from avid readers. That was 2009. I have since found myself coming here much less often as I've observed your decent into an almost fanatical champion of diminishing consequences for those who choose to operate outside societies norms.

I only take the time to express my observations or impressions because you once were quite good at articulating your position and encouraging others to consider your persuasions. I fear your well placed compassion has descended into the arena where screeching liberals dwell and you're giving up your previous credibility as a persuasive debater.

Just my impression as a dentist in the system who also holds a current peace officer license.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@11:29, if observing real-world mathematical disparities in how the same person's labor is valued is descending "into the arena where screeching liberals dwell," I guess I'll plead guilty. To me, math is math, regardless of whether you think it's liberal or conservative, and $12.26 < $23.50.

If this blog has ever persuaded anyone of anything, it's been by insisting on reviewing facts and respecting math instead of taking a reflexively ideological position, and I've not taken one here. I didn't say people shouldn't be punished or do community service, I questioned whether an anachronistic law should be updated to reflect modern economic realities.

Anonymous said...

What was the offense that cost $460 fine?

Anonymous said...

Grits...did I miss something in all of this? First, you claim your friend is indigent, based on what formula do you so quickly come to this conclusion? To hear you tell it, most of the time folks caught in the criminal justice system are indigent and they all need a little free government help (aka where the screeching liberals dwell). Second, why did your friend not go to the court like other responsible citizens and address the violation before it became a warrant? Third, is your "indigent" friend a skilled laborer of some kind that they would get paid more than $12.26 per hour at a job that was not community service? Or maybe your saying that they deserve more community service credit per hour to pay off a traffic ticket that they failed to take care of, at a rate per hour higher than the person working for a living at McDonalds?

Anonymous said...

If the state allows $50 for 8 hours worth of work and they are getting almost $100, it sounds like double credit to me too. Maybe "new" math has a different answer but frankly, they aren't doing the work for the city so who knows how credible the time is spent in the first place or if it benefits anyone beside the defendant. Just because other places credit more doesn't mean they are better, more fair, or more logical either.

Anonymous said...

Anon 2:50, I'm willing to bet the offense was not mentioned on purpose. Despite claims about reflexively ideological position's, when the facts don't suit the argument, Mr. Henson leaves them out or minimizes their importance. He's not alone in that so don't beat him up over it, just recognize that his pieces are best read in conjunction with other points of view for a more balanced understanding of the topics at hand.

Anonymous said...

Well stated, 6:23. I've been reading GFB for several years now and it is, in fact, a good source of information regarding the criminal justice system. But you definitely have to refine Mr. Henson's obvious liberal, anti-law enforcement biases from the posts to get to the useful information. He selectively uses statistics and data to support arguments which are not always justified…. you know, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. Unfortunately, his liberal and libertarian friends at the Legislature do the same thing. It brings to mind Ronald Reagan's quote, "the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they're ignorant, but that they know so much that isn't so."

SEMPERFINE said...

Scott:
For someone who counters an accurate observation on this blog by talking about respect for mathematics, why was there all the controversy when 5:00 p.m. was determined to be 5:00 p.m.?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

To the above questions: the offense was a speeding ticket. I knew she was indigent because she's eligible for government benefits. The defendant did not go to court to take care of it because she had no money and couldn't pay. Also she has no car (why I took her). Like most people, she knows very little about courts or the justice system.

RE: what credit people should get for volunteer time. At root: I don't think a traffic ticket warrants a full work week of labor. But the larger point is that I'm not the one making the valuation. Nonprofits claim volunteer time is valued at a rate nearly double what the court values it. The court gives the defendant a long list of nonprofits. When volunteers work for those nonprofits, the amount the groups can credit as in-kind contribution is double the amount of credit the laborer receives with the state. Should nonprofits credit the labor value lower? That's beyond my ken to know and is a function of IRS rules, etc.. What I do know is that the labor is being valued differently for different government purposes, and there's an intellectual disconnect that disfavors defendants.

@Semperfine - you'd have to ask the Commission on Judicial Conduct about that, they're the ones who most prominently took her to task over that. And the issue wasn't the time so much as her usurping the role of the duty judge who should have been making the decision, if memory serves.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

BTW, y'all realize, don't you, that this is a personal blog, not a news site? Everything you read here is an opinion piece. This blog exists to publish my arguments, not every argument, and not necessarily yours (though you're welcome to leave them in the comments). If anyone is just now figuring out that this site is "best read in conjunction with other points of view," then I'm afraid you've been a bit slow on the uptake. I'm supplementing MSM coverage on these topics with viewpoints not represented there; Grits isn't intended to be a primary news source.