Tuesday, March 21, 2017

House tackling debtors prison issues in 85th Lege

Poor people with municipal court debt may find relief from the 85th Texas Legislature. Not only is Rep. James White promoting much-touted legislation that would end the practice of jailing people for unpaid fines (Chuy Hinojosa filed a companion bill in the senate), judges may gain new authority to order community service or even waive fines when an indigent driver simply can't afford them.

HB 351 by Canales - a bill which originated with a Grits for Breakfast blog post, according to the author's presentation to the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee - was approved  by the committee unanimously and referred to the Calendars Committee to be scheduled for a floor vote. 

Grits loves this bill, which would eliminate the requirement that judges wait until a defendant has defaulted on payments before declaring them indigent. Instead, judges could order community service or even waive fees and fines at the time of sentencing, rather than setting an unrealistic requirement and then waiting for them to fail. That makes a lot more sense.

It's a sign of significant support that it was heard and voted out of committee so early, and stands a great chance of making it over to the senate, perhaps even becoming law. See earlier Grits coverage.

UPDATE (3/22): This bill passed the House on second reading today with minor amendments. The main change was to tell judges to put in a time limit on how long defendants have to complete their community service. Exciting that this bill has gotten so far, so early. NUTHER UPDATE (3/23) The bill passed the House with no third reading amendments. One chamber down!

17 comments:

Concerned citizen of Texas said...

So if these bills actually pass I will be able to blaze through a school zone, uninsured, unlicensed, and uninspected, with a glove box filled with unpaid tickets with no serious consequences unless and until I hurt or kill a kid. Wow, whats happened to Texas? It used to boast the most innovative, fair, progressive court compliance program in the country. Everyone was trying to copy it. What happen? Is it safe to drink the water?

Anonymous said...

To Anon 02:06:00,,that was a very grade school type response from you..why don't you try being a little more productive?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@concerned, the answer is you've overstated the system's "fairness." Because in fact the system is palpably unfair and punishes the poor for the sake of maximizing revenue, these changes are needed.

Mark M. said...

Dear "Concerned." If you believe that traffic tickets are written in Texas to provide for public safety rather than revenue, you need to sit down. I have something to tell you, and it's going to make you very sad...

Anonymous said...

If one receives a ticket for running a stop sign in parts of N Texas you can only get a payment plan if you don't fight the ticket. Matters not if the sign itself violates state law or if it hidden behind shrubbery.


If you do plead guilty there are numerous creative fees. If you want traffic school to keep it away from insurance again you can't get a payment BTW. So you suffer higher insurance rates.

I had a hospice patient that bested the system: he kept asking to reschedule the court date due to medical problems and he died before the system caught on ... so in one sense he 'won'.

Steven Seys said...

This is the first step in Texas's journey toward respecting the intrinsic value of a human being, instead of the balance of his bank account. I salute the Ledg. Now if the municipal governments and lawyers would also see value in individual humans separate from their bank accounts, there may be justice finally in Texas.

SEMPERFINE said...

Good start, but until someone truly takes up the retroactive abolition of "Surcharges", we will still have debtor's prison in Texas..oh well, maybe next session!

Anonymous said...

See SB 90.

Anonymous said...

One problem that the Legislators are not addressing is the cost of tickets in Texas. I have seen tickets that are over $600 and the city/county you owe it to will not allow payment plans or community service. So, you have a hold on your DL if you don't pay the tickets!

GRITS, have you seen any bills to abolish the surcharges??

WhyMeLord said...

GRITS, have you seen any bills to abolish the surcharges??

Not GRITS but on trips to Austin on other business I have been privy conversations that show there is a reluctance to diddle with that 'cash cow'.

Anonymous said...

See SB 90.Bill to repeal Texas DRP sponsord by Senator Hall (R) Also there are other similar bills.

Anonymous said...

YES YES YES !!! Just read update.

Anonymous said...

Yea!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Re: surcharges, this is the bill in the works that has legs, though it's not a great solution. It still keeps elements of the surcharge that I don't like - especially retention of the surcharge for no-insurance tickets - and increases traffic ticket fines by $30 to cover the trauma hospital share. My understanding is it would grant amnesty to people who owe surcharges now, which is why advocates haven't rejected the idea out of hand. But enthusiasm for this solution is tepid.

Straight up abolition is considered non-viable this session by lege leaders because of the budget shortfall and their unwillingness to either a) divert border security funding or b) tap into the rainy day fund.

Mark said...

Not having insurance is the only "law" one can break and drive off continuing to be in violation of it. Arguably, nobody is uninsured, we are all required to carry uninsured motorist coverage. Drive without insurance at your own risk. That should be the end of it.

As far as the indigent and failure to pay. Look at it from this perspective. Problem: Jailing the poor for being poor; solution, jailing the poor for failing to perform community service. The legislature is not responsible for perpetuating the problem; expecting them to legislate a way out of it is simply not realistic.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Mark, that's not remotely the "only 'law' one can break and drive off continuing to be in violation of it." How about expired tags, inspection sticker, equipment violations, etc.? Lots of petty economic "crimes" (you didn't pay so it's a crime) play out that way. Because: Reality.

Mark said...

Grits, I agree with your point on violations; however, equipment violations are a different animal altogether. Lets just assume for a moment they are the same. Should not the goal be for vehicles and drivers of them be to operate them safely and within the laws of the state? If we agree on that point then the next question simply is how to get there. Lets say your tail light is out; you get stopped, officer tickets you but lets you know, show up to court with it fixed and the ticket goes away. You don't show and ignore the ticket/repair altogether. You and I both know there are folks both with and without the financial ability to make the repair that will ignore the opportunity. What then? Where does individual responsibility begin, and where does it end? Is it not the responsibility of drivers to ensure the safety of others by maintenance of their own vehicles? Is it not the responsibility of drivers to drive safely and not recklessly?

Grits, you have classified this as an economic crime; the problem is that is not accurate. Economic issues certainly contribute, but they are not the primary factor. Lack of attentiveness and the shirking of responsibility are the major driving factors. My trucks tires are my responsibility and mine alone. I agree to keep them in working condition each time I drive on a public road. I will not disagree that government does make a profit from the scenario but keep in mind it is the same government that sells us God's rain every month.

Traffic fines are a financial incentive to "behave", problem is that does not work on everyone. It never will; and performing community service hours does nothing to fix your taillight which arguably should be the goal in the first place.