Monday, December 03, 2018

Texas courts already know how to handle debt without incarceration; now the #txlege should apply those lessons to Class C misdemeanor fines

In a private conversation, a frequent #cjreform opponent recently criticized a proposal endorsed by both the Republican and Democratic Party platforms in Texas to eliminate arrests for non-payment of Class C misdemeanor debt.

"So you're just saying they shouldn't be punished?," our critic wondered, in an exasperated voice. "How is that justice? Should they face no consequence at all?"

We're going to be hearing this argument a lot in the coming months, so let's address it.

First, of course, no one is saying offenders shouldn't be punished. Overwhelmingly, most people who receive traffic tickets just pay them. And states that treat traffic infractions as non-criminal and send the debt to collections have essentially similar payment rates to us here in Texas.

So the question becomes, is it "justice" when a judge assesses debt which cannot be paid but fails to incarcerate the debtor for nonpayment?

Indeed, we need look no further on this question than to the same Texas Justices of the Peace who handle Class C traffic tickets at the county level. Those courts also handle civil claims up to $10,000.

When a defendant loses in small-claims court (it's not called that, anymore, but that's what it is), a JP typically orders monetary payment as judgment.

If the defendant cannot pay, jailing them is not allowed. Instead, plaintiffs must pursue debt collection using other methods, such as liens on property, turnover orders, sending the debt to commercial collections, etc..

We're left to wonder, why is debt to the government somehow such a big deal that it warrants incarceration of those who cannot pay? Clearly, non-carceral methods are sufficient for these same judges to declare "justice" done if the beneficiary of court-declared debt is a person, not the government.

The government has created a double standard to benefit itself. Ethical qualms about the private sector excessively squeezing the poor are routinely ignored in the public sector when it comes to criminal-justice debt, particularly Class C misdemeanor traffic fines.

Locals enjoy wide leeway on these questions and cities' reliance on Class-C-fine debt for revenue varies widely. Though apples-to-apples data is hard to come by, an item in Forbes a couple of years ago calculated 2013 per-capita ticket revenue for US cities with more than 250,000 population: In El Paso, the city received $6.16 per capita from these sources in 2013; in Houston the per-capita figure was $17.89; Dallas, $32.58; Plano, by contrast, received $43.36 per capita. That's all over the map.

Since municipalities which rely more heavily on ticket revenue have lower clearance rates for more serious crimes, no one should aspire to match those higher per-capita totals.

The use of incarceration to punish the poor for non-payment of traffic fines appears flat-out ironic when one considers that wealthier people are more likely to commit traffic offenses. So the class of folks facing the harshest punishments for Class C misdemeanors is also the least culpable. In a nation where 40 percent of the population, according to the Federal Reserve, cannot afford a surprise $400 bill without going into debt or selling something, that makes little sense.

There's nothing sacrosanct about debt to the government, certainly from the point of view of the debtor. From the perspective of the stone, it doesn't matter who wants to squeeze blood from it; none is forthcoming.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Except that a lot of people who are otherwise judgment proof will FIND a way to pay a fine to stay out of jail. Considering that most jurisdictions accept credit card payments these days and it's not too difficult to get access to a credit card, there's not much excuse for not paying a fine. We get that you and the Right on Crime bunch want to decriminalize damned near everything these days, but your argument in this regard is pretty disingenuous. Nice try though.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Hmmm ... there are half a million people who sit out Class C fines in jail every year because they cannot pay, so it doesn't sound like everyone is having the easy-peasy time of it you're describing.

You're one who's disingenuous if your response to the fact that 40 percent of the public can't pay a $400 bill is to say "Let them put the fines on their credit cards!"

Why not just declare, "Let them eat cake!" It's about as tone deaf.

Anonymous said...

The next sub-prime lending boom! Same day bail advance! Book here pay here, no credit necessary, we must be insane!!!

Oi Vey said...

Have you ever considered the fact that many choose to sit out their crimes instead of paying? It is easier. I see it EVERY DAY. They come to jail on Friday night and lay it out. Cash is still in their pocket, which is a good thing as they need that cash. Sometimes we have 2 for 1 at the jail...and we have even had 3 for 1.

The hard part is determining if they are poor. What effort is the court making to verify that they actually do not have the cash to pay the fine other than their word? That is difficult to do. I am sure many lie, hoping to get it reduced or removed, but there are also some who are broke. There are people who live in nice neighborhoods and are just as broke as people who live in bad neighborhoods. They spend their money on cars, over-extend themselves, credit cards, etc and have no extra cash so they can keep up with the Jones'. But I don't think they are excused as as "being poor" because of their zip code.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"The hard part is determining if they are poor."

Correction: The hard part is that government definitions of poverty are lower than the income levels at which people have trouble paying the fines.

About 15% of Texans live below the official poverty line but the bottom 40% can't pay a $400 bill without selling something or going into debt. Pretending the people btwn 15-40% are all capable of paying is why the system doesn't work.

A few in the current system may prefer to sit out tickets in jail, but that's certainly not true for the bulk of the half-million people going to jail over tickets every year. I don't mind leaving that option as a defendant choice, but if the debt just went to collections, I doubt many people would want to sit in jail (which costs taxpayers, anyway, and benefits no one).

Oi Vey said...

I have seen the articles on not being able to pay $400. But there are also articles that "About six in 10 Americans (61%) don’t have enough cash put away to cover a $1,000 emergency, such as an ER visit or a car repair, according to previous Bankrate research." My point is, MANY Americans don't have money. What are the courts doing to indicate if he or she is exempt from paying? Are there forms? Do they verify with paystubs and budget sheets? Or, is it just based on a zip code or how they are dressed? We need a plan. I do agree, if someone doesn't have the money, it doesn't mean they need to be put in jail. What about OTHER options for the person so there is still some type of penalty for the crime and they don't have to sit in jail possibly causing them to lose their jobs, etc.? I don't want the system to evolve into "If you are poor, you can have traffic tickets and don't have to pay."

Anonymous said...

Debtor prison was outlawed in this country many years before I was born, I am 67 years old. To incarcerate people that, for one reason or another, cannot pay a traffic ticket which has no injured party is running in the face of what our legal system is supposed to be based upon until you look at the securities side of the ledger. How much is a prisoner worth on the securities market? Shall we take a look at the Court Reserve Investment System (CRIS) to see what each prisoner brings? I think just a sampling of the CUSIP numbers will bring a very large surprise and the basis for keeping things the way they are.

Anonymous said...

One of the unspoken issues here is that the Texas prison system, along with the courts and bar associations, are a loathsome self licking ice cream cone that the average person is largely ignorant of. Why not community service of some type as a punishment? How much skill is required to do yard work around courthouses, picking up trash, minor painting of park benches? When dad and mom are in jail social services gets mobilized and ALL of us pay for that. Redneck retribution needs to be updated.

Anonymous said...

Long after my neighbor defaulted on credit card debt he began receiving letters from banks saying he was PREAPPROVED for 3 and 5 thousand dollars of credit on a new card. Corporate greed is one of the big enemies here and those who would jail deadbeats need to talk about the WHOLE TRUTH for a change instead of the censored politically correct version.

Anonymous said...

Well, I don't really disagree that something should be done, but I think this "debt to the government" distinction is a false one. The point is that the people of this State have determined that Class C offenses are just that criminal offenses. After all, if I negligently crash into a police car, the city won't put me in jail. They'll just get a civil judgment against me. If we wanna make something a criminal offense, I think people expect that it will be treated as a criminal matter -- consequences do make a difference.
I mean, I wouldn't have any objection to chancing traffic offenses to "civil violations" or whatever (like some other states or countries), but it makes sense to actually call them that before we have what amounts to a big traffic ticket amnesty.
By the way, I NEVER pay red light camera tickets. Partly because I have doubts about the constitutionality, but MOSTLY because I know for a fact that nothing will happen to me if I don't. By law, it's not a criminal offense and it won't be reflected on my credit history. So, what would we do with scofflaws like me?

Anonymous said...

Don't kid yourself... "poor" folks don't pay because they know that they won't go to jail for not paying. Now, they have money for cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, lotto tickets, nail salons, hair extensions, and all the "necessities" of life (apparently, this includes Air Jordans for their kids); but pay their court-ordered financial obligations? Puhleeze!

This is not to say that the system isn't tilted against them in some ways. Fines are way too heavy, court costs due in the first 30 days after sentencing, court appointed attorney fees disproportionate to the amount of legal work done.

While I agree that there should not be debtors' prisons, what are the consequences for not complying with the law for minor offenses? I hate those serial scofflaws who don't pay the road tolls, because I pay them. For someone who owes $10,000 in unpaid toll fees, what do you propose we do... a sternly worded admonition? Where is the incentive to obey the laws and statutes that hold civilized society together?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@Oi Vey - you keep ignoring the category of drivers who a) are not exempt from paying but b) still cannot pay. The $400 number is from the Federal Reserve Board, fwiw, and is pretty solid. (Don't know about Bankrate.) Regardless, to me it doesn't matter what the government is doing to check their income. Many of the people who aren't "indigent" under the government standards still cannot pay. The government pretending they can because their income is above an arbitrarily low line doesn't really mean much. Because blood, and stones.

What "other options" did you have in mind besides all the options available to recoup from civil debtors? FTM, nobody said community service couldn't still be a requirement, just that jail wouldn't be.

11:33, agreed, 100%

@12:19, the answer to "what do we do with scofflaws?" is "treat them like civil debtors." Those courts have means to recoup debt, but there are also exempted assets and societally accepted limits on debt collection. Every tool available on the civil side to collect a small-claims court judgment would be available for these debts. Just not jailing people.

@2:22 you seem to agree there's a problem but are too racist* and mean to solve it if it might help black people. I feel sorry for you, really. It must be terrible to go through life looking at other people as you do. Thankfully, your caricatures are just that. The half-million people who went to jail last year for unpaid tickets for the most part bore little resemblance to them.

*Hair extensions, nail salons, Air Jordans ... hmmmm which group of people do you think he's talking about? smh

Anonymous said...

If you want to use civil cases as the standard, and call a fine a "debt", maybe we should also lower the burden of proof to match. Make the government prove its case but a preponderance of the evidence, just like civil litigants.

Anonymous said...

the answer to "what do we do with scofflaws?" is "treat them like civil debtors."

Fine, I guess, but as 06:08 points out, there's a trade-off: if we insist on making these criminal offenses, we're going to have to prove the offenses beyond a reasonable doubt. What incentive does the State have to bear such a burden and then turn around and treat defendants like someone who didn't pay their cable bill?

I, for one, am not comfortable with the other alternative -- preponderance standards for heretofore criminal offenses. And, frankly, there will be a great hue and cry if we have a future where every small-quantity marijuana possession case will be provable on a preponderance standard.

I don't want the government nickel and diming me for every "civil offense" its gendarmes think it sees -- and then I have to face a civil court burden of proof. I'd rather jail be lurking in the background somewhere (and force the government to use normal "beyond a reasonable doubt" standards to prove whatever they think I did).

Anonymous said...

The ultimate punishment-----modify the car of the poor person so that no cell phone will operate from inside the vehicle. A real gain-gain for everyone.

Anonymous said...

What about shifting the procedes from tickets away from municipalities and up to the state general fund, or redistributed to counties based on population. Maybe the current penalty system is poisoned by municipalities being able to use tickets to create revenue. If the city loses control of the money then their only incentive to enforce traffic laws and write tickets becomes *ghasp* public safety!

Let the state jail you or send you to collections or surcharge your license or whatever. Just so long as the guy writing the ticket doesn't stand to make a buck.

Maybe the state could, by legislation, have to spend ticket revenue on driver safety initiatives. I mean we all know it will go to bonuses and getting the Cowboys a bigger parking lot, but it's nice to dream.

Anonymous said...

Correction: if the tickets don't tie directly to money then their only incentive to enforce traffic laws is *ghasp* public safety... And pretex stops *sigh*

Anonymous said...

Then there is the case of the elderly indigent gentleman in Virginia that despaired of his inability to pay for a few parking tickets along with his expensive cancer and heart medications. So, in a fit of desperation he threw a brick through the window of the police station and then asked the judge for the maximum sentence, telling the court "I can't pay for my parking tickets, let alone the medications I am supposed to be taking so, judge, I want YOU and this fine community to pay for them."

The case was quickly moved to judges' chambers lest the other poor folk get the idea.

So what happens when the jail starts to look good and is no longer a deterrent to the man at the end of his rope? Okay rough and tough cowboys, get your wallets out since you will be paying for all of this.

Anonymous said...

Courts and debt---oh yeah. Even after my brother's attorney maxxed out his credit cards over three quarters of the fee remained unpaid so the attorney asked if my indigent relative had any land or other assets he could sell. Regrettably such was not the case and my brother's defense went from lackluster to laughable in a flash. Such was not the case for me---for the next 12 years I had bill collectors calling me and sending me letters. Somehow they figured my brother was living with me and none of them had the integrity or work ethic to follow up on the warden's phone number and TDCJ number I provided to all. Remember this anecdote when you pull jury duty-----a lot of people have, tee hee. Yes, justice takes many forms.......