Monday, January 09, 2006

High fines needlessly fill jails with non-dangerous offenders

It's easy to understand the Texas Legislature's penchant for boosting fines for traffic tickets and other Class C offenses (low-level offenses which carry penalties of fines only, not incarceration): In theory, fines fill the local treasury without filling up the county jail or needing to pay attorneys for indigent defendants, both major cost drivers for Texas counties.

But when fines rise too high, they cease to serve such beneficial functions. After increasing
nearly every legislative session for decades, today Texas state and local governments are too reliant on fine income, reflexively preferring to mulct low-level traffic offenders than to boost taxes. "I think anything we can do that helps us make a perpetrator pay the bill rather than the taxpayers is good," said Randall County Criminal District Attorney James Farren in today's Amarillo Globe News ("County office to enforce fines," Jan. 9). That's a fine sound bite, but foolish and misguided public policy: especially with Class C offenders more than any other class of violator, the "perpetrators" ARE the taxpayers, so what's the damn difference?

The Globe News article reports that Randall County has enacted a new state-mandated program to boost fine collection, but neighboring Potter County believes increased fine enforcement wouldn't benefit their county, reported the Globe News:

The [Randall County collections] department started as a mandate by the state to enhance the money brought in from fines and fees, a percentage of which goes to the state.

"Probably one third of what we collect goes to the state," Carter said.

Potter County will not be making the move for another year because it got a waiver from the state.

"That makes us just a collection agency for the state," said Potter County Judge Arthur Ware. "What happens if they don't pay? Put them in jail and hold them until they come up with the money at $45 a day to keep them?"

That's exactly right, and at a time when many Texas county jails are overcrowded with little respite in sight. Basically the new state policy has counties using their jails as a debtors' prisons, incarcerating people not because they're dangerous, but as maximum leverage for extracting money from Class C defendants. I'd not heard about this new state collections policy; I'll have to chase that sucker down, or maybe some reader knows something?

In any case, fine levels in Texas are out of control and everywhere contribute to jail overcrowding for precisely the reason identified by Potter County Judge -- defendants who otherwise would never be incarcerated are jailed at taxpayers' expense with zero benefit to public safety, just because they can't afford to pay.

I thought about this all not long ago when a college-age kid I know got a ticket for a Class C offense -- between the fine, court fees, fees to DPS, and the cost of a pretty-darn-worthless "class" she had to take (by her account it was disorganized and poorly taught), the whole thing cost around $550. She makes $7 per hour. If she were supporting herself that would be an impossible amount. Even with her parents' help, it's a strain.

But what happens to kids who don't have parents to backstop them? They just don't pay, then get picked up on warrants and inevitably wind up incarcerated on the taxpayers' dime. Who benefits then?

Even for folks who don't sit out petty sentences in jail, the cost of arresting, booking and processing people picked up on warrants for unpaid fines adds up given the volume of folks involved. It's really a huge waste of resources to use the criminal justice system as a giant debt collector -- beyond victim compensation, raising money shouldn't be a function of jails and courts. The Potter County judge prefers the old privatized system counties used before the new state mandate:
Currently, those fined are required to pay 40 percent at sentencing and the balance in 60 days.

"At the end of 60 days, they become delinquent and we can turn it over to a collection agency that tacks on a fee to the fine, and it costs the county nothing," Ware said.

The state will pay counties 10 percent of what the counties collect in return for the [new] service.

"They don't have to come up with the money for a collection department and they get 90 percent," Ware said.

Using a private collection agency for fines makes a lot more sense than filling up jails with non-dangerous offenders just to increase government revenue. I've not written much before about questions surrounding Class C fines, but I find this trend extraordinarily misguided and not just a little disturbing.


Anonymous said...

This just goes back to a basic question: Which offenses are egregious enough to warrant loss of liberty...and which are 'offenses' because some soccer mom with too much time on her hands and has aspirations of politics decides to make something that bugs her illegal?

One could make the case that something very similar happened (substitute "missionaries in China" or "bigots who disliked Mexicans" and "politicians scheming to build bureaucratic satrapies at the public's expense" for the "soccer moms") and you have a partial explanation for the DrugWar.

The proponents of the "Broken Windows" philosophy of punishing minor offenses such as illicit drug possession harshly with exhorbitant fines and/or incarceration are on collision course with the Beancounters. Who will win?

Anonymous said...

Viva the Beancounters!

Anonymous said...

I'd not heard about this new state collections policy; I'll have to chase that sucker down, or maybe some reader knows something?

I've only heard a brief comment on the "Consumer Fightback Show" on KXEB (Dallas's Air America affiliate). I heard they want to treat unpaid fines as bad debts and report it to the credit bureaus, rather than jailing nonpayers.

I have mixed feelings about that. Most folks would probably prefer bad credit to jail; but then again, bad credit typically stays on your credit report for seven years - and possibly as many as twenty! And with modern credit-card agreements, one bad report could start a cascade of usurious interest rates that leaves the offender bankrupt - except (s)he probably can't take bankruptcy anymore! Jail might have been a blessing in disguise.

In any case, I agree with you. Fines should be high enough to deter the offense, but shouldn't become a revenue center. Cities and towns shouldn't depend on fines for their day-to-day expenses.

Anonymous said...

What's your opinion on old traffic offenses? A few weeks ago I received a letter from a lawyers office representing the city of Houston. They want me to pay $330 dollars for two tickets and a failure to appear. The tickets stem from a traffic stop way back in 1994. Can the city do this?

I'm actually thinking of scheduling a court date for this and then demanding a jury trial. I wonder if they would be willing to go to all that trouble for 330 dollars.

SteveHeath said...

I lost over six months of my earlier years serving sentences of varying lengths in a number of DFW area city jails and the Dallas County jail - all for unpaid traffic fines.

An added exacerbation in Texas (As some of you know, I relocated to Florida in 1997) is that a lot of unpaid tickets also involve missed court dates which triggers a Failure To Appear charge.

My last stretch was in the Irving city jail where I had to do 33 days to work off $50 per day. Six routine traffic tickets (out of date tags, inspection stickers and one no-insurance) totalling about $900 and then tack on another $600+ for the six FTAs.

And of course the net result was the state essentially "paid me" to sit in jail at taxpayer cost since I was unable to produce the $1500+ upon demand when arrested.

I considered borrowing it from various sources, but at the time was self-employed and single. A family member gave me assurance I would have a place to live so I just sat it out and walked out with a clean legal slate.

Of course most people would be in danger of losing jobs, residences and vehicles if they "took a month off".

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@ Bruceh: I'll bet if you demand a jury trial it will all just go away -- what cop would even remember the tickets all that time ago?

@ Steven: Yours is exactly the type of story I'm talking about. Nobody was any safer for the time you spent in jail. best,