Sunday, April 20, 2008

Reducing Dallas jail's "debtor prison" function would save money, reduce overcrowding

Debtors prisons have been outlawed in the United States in every circumstance but one: When the government is the Creditor.

But the economics of debtors prisons don't work well on a large scale, particularly when operated and paid for by said sole Creditor. The expense of exacting the punishment for non-payment can easily cost more than it would have simply to reduce the debt for those who could not pay.

The City of Dallas is pondering a program to reduce unnecessary incarceration in the county jail for people who can't or don't pay traffic tickets, reports the Dallas News ("Plan to eliminate jail time for fine-only offenses could save Dallas $1 million per year," April 20):

The city of Dallas may open a 24-hour court to immediately process people arrested for many minor infractions, which could eventually save the city about $1 million a year.

Dallas Chief Municipal Court Judge Jay Robinson proposed the changes, likening the current situation to a "debtors' prison," because dozens of people arrested every day for not paying fines on tickets are often left languishing in the county jail overnight or even longer, waiting to see a judge.

He said the process mostly penalizes those with the least ability to pay fines and court costs.

"None of our crimes carry jail time," the municipal court judge said. "They're fine-only offenses. ... Does it make sense to imprison someone for a registration violation? That seems sort of ridiculous."

City officials are estimating that in time the city could save $1 million a year on the more than $6.8 million the city pays the county for the use of its jail facility.

The county jail's population could also fall, because fewer arrested people would be going to the jail, but the impact is likely to be minor. County officials say every little bit helps.

The types of violations the court would process are all from people arrested for Class C misdemeanor tickets – often when cited for three or more violations at the same time.

Others are taken into custody for failing to pay such tickets.

A judge told the paper there are two kinds of defendants who end up in court for traffic fines - those who can't pay, and those who forget to do so. Is there really any public safety benefit from incarcerating either class of defendant at all?

There's certainly little economic benefit. When people jailed for fines finally get to traffic court, "most received "time-served" sentences, meaning they don't have to pay fines and court costs," the paper reports.

The issue in the last several years reached a crisis stage because of massive new fines enacted in 2003, funds which go into the Orwellian named "Driver Responsibility Program." As a result, today an astonishing 10% of Texas drivers have outstanding warrants, and the county jails simply couldn't possibly jail every driver with debts to the state. (Overall, seventy percent of "Driver Responsibility" fines go unpaid statewide.)

Dallas' idea would reduce the procedural burden for processing excessively large fines and court costs from these minor offenses. Instead of supplying a deterrent for poor behavior that we want to reduce, both state and local government have come to rely on fine revenue for significant aspects of their budget.

Public safety goals are harmed when government comes to rely on fines for routine income because law enforcement's goal should be to reduce crime, but if crime goes down it generates a revenue crisis for the state.

I like Dallas' idea, and look forward to seeing more details about how it would work and what happens with fines under the new regimen.


Ron in Houston said...

Great post

I had a screw up with paying a fine one time and had a warrant. Fortunately, it was caught before I got caught.

Anonymous said...

Probationers probably fill up the jail more so that traffic tickets.

Anonymous said...

Sounds good to me,I'll well never pay my tickets.

Anonymous said...

We used to have that problem in Iowa but now you cannot renew your license or register a vehicle unless your fines and taxes have been paid.

Ron in Houston said...


We have that rule in Texas but down here in the Lone Star state we believe in incarcerating everybody we're mad at for whatever reason.


You have to pay your tickets within 4 years or they won't renew your license. However, if this were a reality TV show, I'd vote you off our island.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

JSN, two problems make that policy, which for years caused most fines to be paid, no longer solve things.

First, the "driver responsibility" fines go as high as $1,000 per year for three consecutive years for one offense, on top of whatever the fine is for the offense itself. Many just can't pay, or only pay the first year. This is the main factor driving the trend that 10% of Texans have warrants.

Second, Texas doesn't give DLs to undocumented immigrants, so perhaps a couple million drivers off the bat are unlicensed and cannot purchase insurance (one of the "driver responsibility" offenses). If you can't get a DL anyway, being unable to renew it gives no incentive to pay the fine.

Anonymous said...

Well Ronald sound's like you live on an island.

Ron in Houston said...


It's just wishful thinking. I'm trying to imagine a world without narrow minded people like you. People who think that we should put poor people in jail when they can't pay their traffic fines.

OK, back to reality - you exist. Oh, the brutally cold reality! Thanks to Grits for pointing out the insanity of your way of thinking.

Ron in Houston said...


Do you know or can you get the stats on how many people are incarcerated for child support? That's the other modern debtor prison.

Anonymous said...

About 20 people a day get booked into the Harris County jail for technical probation violations.
Of that, a large percentage are merely for non-payment of court costs, fine, and other, "fees".

Anonymous said...

Are there persons incarcerated for failure to pay child support? If they are there are they probably are in jail on a contempt charge. Contempt is used for other infractions so I think it would be difficult to come up with reliable stats.

If you put someone in jail for failure to pay and if they are held for more than a few days they will become unemployed.

Raju said...

The blog is very nice.

Anonymous said...

I got a ticket for get this NOT WEARING SOX (I was wearing sandles driving a cab middle of the summer)

I was going to take this to court to see if the judge would reduce my $195 fine as I have since quit the unprofitable cab driving and am now unemployed.

I thought my case hearing was next week and danged if I didn't miss my court date...I now have a warrant for my arrest and the fine is now $259.

It is a sad state of affairs in Dallas when they show no mercy to poor cab drivers (could have been a warning ticket not like I am a hardened haneous no sock wearin felon) In the 2 months prior to this ticket 3 cab drivers were murdered trying to make a living.

Now that I am thru whining where do I go to turn myself in? Be a heck of a thing to be arrested after finally landing a job.