Thursday, November 01, 2018

Build on momentum to end Texas debtors prison practices

Your correspondent has been openly pleased with the success of Texas' debtors-prison reform legislation from 2017. This will always be one of Grits' favorites because the House bill author, state Rep. Terry Canales, told the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee when he laid out the bill that many of the ideas behind it came from a post on this humble blog.

So I was pleased to see the site Edinburg Politics recently published an extended feature on the legislation, and the Rio Grande Valley legislators who championed it. As Grits had written previously, the legislation has overachieved, actually boosting collections, contrary to predictions by naysayers, most prominently municipal judges, who predicted all sorts of dark and terrible consequences if it were to pass.

But it's worth emphasizing that debtors-prison reform in Texas is a half-done task. The state has taken some of the most comically absurd elements out of its Class-C-fine system, but it's still grinding up hundreds of thousands of Texans every year who are too poor to pay.

According to data presented to the Lege by the Office of Court Administration (which, oddly, is only presented for 11-month blocs, September through July of each year), the total number of warrants issued for Class C misdemeanors, including for failure to appear, declined by 37.5 percent since the 11 months ending July 2015. But in the comparable period ending July 2018, there were still 1.25 million warrants issued!

In addition, the number of arrest warrants issued for failure to pay Class C fines declined over the same period, from about 700,000 in the 11 months ending July 2015 to ~500,000 for the comparable period in 2018.

But half-a-million arrest warrants issued for failure to pay in fine-only offenses is still an amazing number!

The number of people who sit out their fines and fees in jail because they cannot pay has also been in decline. In the 11 months ending July 2015, they totaled 620,491; for the comparable period in 2018, it was 456,220.

That pro-rates to about a half-million people in FY 2018 sitting out their fines in jail - the definition of a 21st century debtors prison.

By contrast, the new provisions installed in HB 351/SB 1913 are still being used sparingly. Judges were given greater authority to waive fines, but the increase from the 11 months ending July 2015 (24,876) to the comparable period in 2018 (44,603) pales in comparison to the number of people sitting out their fines in jail. Even after the reforms, ten times as many people were jailed for justice debt as had it waived.

Similarly, the number of people benefiting from increased access to community service, while not insignificant, was still small potatoes.

So the 2017 legislation was a good start, but it has also served to underscore how far we have to go.

Thankfully, there's strong momentum to build on these reforms. This year in June, both the Republican and Democratic state parties endorsed platform provisions to cease arresting drivers who cannot pay for Class C misdemeanor fines, a measure proposed by state Rep. James White in 2017.

Then, last month, a survey by the Texas Office of Court Administration found that 66% of Texans disapprove of jailing defendants over fines and fees when they cannot pay. And new research has lately emerged showing that cities which rely on low-level fines as revenue sources tend to solve more serious crimes at lower rates.

So entering the 2019 session, legislation to use commercial collections instead of incarceration to enforce Class C misdemeanor debt begins with a genuinely bipartisan pedigree, evidence-based backing, and 2-1 support from the Texan public. It's hard to think of a better-positioned reform bill headed into the session.

4 comments:

SEMPER FINE said...

Good story. Now let's focus on getting rid of surcharges and mandatory license suspension for marijuana possession cases!

Anonymous said...

See this article---The US can no longer hide from its deep poverty problem--by Angus Deaton

TDCJ and the lawyer guild fan this flame by recycling the incarcerated again and again. Here in El Paso a drug infested halfway house awaits those who leave prison after ridiculous sentences---the ideal set up for a struggling person to be rearrested in. Texans seem slow to learn that their court and prison system is a huge self licking ice cream cone that creates far more problems than it solves---to include wasting billions of tax dollars.

After my tortured relative got out of TDCJ his physical and mental state was such that he immediately qualified for the PACE program---a joint Medicare and Medicaid program that supports indigent, elderly and frail seniors-------it is only fitting that Texas taxpayers now pay for my relative's healthcare. Guards at Boyd and Skyview who tortured my relative should think of him when they look at the box on their paychecks that say "federal taxes withheld."

My lawyer has signed him up for every federal, state and local program he qualifies for. Watch out Texas---we are coming after your money since that is the only thing people respect nowadays.

Anonymous said...

Don't bother going to the FBI if your relative gets tortured in TDCJ---and the Ombudsman's Office in TDCJ is even more of a joke. Voice your concerns to international rights organizations that aren't cowed by Austin like Texas media and lawyers are.

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