Tuesday, October 27, 2015

City of Austin sued for illegally jailing poor debtors

Modern-day debtors’ prisons, where municipal and JP courts routinely jail people too poor to pay fines and fees from traffic tickets and other petty offenses, have been a hot topic since the discriminatory policing practices of Fergeson, Missouri and other St. Louis suburbs were exposed last year. 

Yesterday the Texas Fair Defense Project, the UT Civil Rights Clinic, and the law firm Susman Godfrey filed a federal lawsuit to stop the City of Austin from unconstitutionally jailing people for municipal court debt. This is the first class action lawsuit of its kind to be filed in Texas, and along with a recent investigative piece by BuzzFeed on similar issues in the El Paso Municipal Courts, has brought the conversation about how justice is meted out for the most petty of criminal offenses to Texas.

Regardless of what happens in the court case, the practice of jailing people unable to pay their fines and fees is just plain bad criminal justice policy.  It's a lose, lose, lose. The debtor loses their job, their home and possibly their children or other family connections. Their children and other dependents lose the economic and emotional support that the debtor had provided and increase their dependence on public benefits and social services. The city, county and state government have increased costs and decreased tax revenue, due to the debtor losing their job and the increased burden on public benefits and social services. 

And county taxpayers foot the bill for the jail housing the debtor. By our calculation, that bill could be $60,000 a month for Travis County based on debtors ordered jailed by the City of Austin alone.

I hope this litigation creates an opportunity to rethink how things have been done in the past and change business as usual in municipal and JP courts for the future.

MORE: See coverage of the new lawsuit from BuzzFeed News and the Austin Statesman, as well as BuzzFeed's related coverage from El Paso.

* Disclosure - This post was authored by Rebecca Bernhardt, Executive Director of the Texas Fair Defense Project and attorney for the Plaintiffs in Gonzales et al. v. City of Austin.

Grits' note: Readers, Becky is one of several wonderful new writers Grits will be welcoming on board in the near future to bolster my own waning content and provide some new perspectives. Becky's a fine lawyer and a veteran civil rights advocate who I've known for a decade or more. She's a valued friend who this spring succeeded our pal Andrea Marsh as executive director at the Texas Fair Defense Project. So please welcome Becky and treat her kindly. I'm grateful she agreed to write here and thrilled she decided to kick things off with such an important announcement.


Anonymous said...

I read the Complaint and I agree that Austin is in the wrong. But what I also saw is people driving without insurance, which has consequences for anyone they hit. So if you're poor, you just get a pass on laws the rest of us have to obey? And why should I pay to inspect and register my vehicle if poor people don't have to? I don't have much money either. I also can't work sometimes because of medical problems. Of course, I don't continue to have 6-7 kids when I can't afford to feed the ones I have. So what I see and what a lot of others will see is that we supply these people with food, medical care for them and their numerous children, housing benefits, and whatever else, and now we are expected to let them break the laws the rest of us have no choice but to obey without consequence. Not many people are going to find that fair.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Fair is a place where they judge pigs, 12:27, it has nothing to do with traffic enforcement.

The problem with the auto insurance mandate is similar to the Obamacare mandate - requiring someone to participate in a market transaction or face punishment ensures significant levels of non-participation, except - and this is an extremely important difference - there are no subsidies for auto insurance.

All your tropes about 6 kids, etc., are beside the point and a bit silly. As a practical matter, we're imposing fines on the indigent right now - more than 10 percent of Texas drivers have outstanding warrants - and it's not solving the insurance problem because of this structural flaw in a mandated market. You can't get blood from a stone.

Progressive said...

1)anonymous: at least have the courage and courtesy to sign your name to your prejudicial views. No one is saying to not hold violators accountable, just that it makes little sense to create a debtors prison that costs taxpayers.

2)SPLC has been dealing with the same issue in Alabama for some time

Anonymous said...

Grits - is this really a game changer? If the City of Austin couldn't jail people for not paying a speeding ticket, wouldn't the state of texas just start finding new ways to suspend driver's licenses for unpaid traffic tickets and jail people for that? Doesn't it amount to the same thing?

Tom Neal said...

Years ago, I started reading this blog because of traffic tickets. (Family in college with traffic tickets they could not pay.) I understand why we need traffic tickets but I don't understand, why not having the money to pay their ticket, should ruin someones life. Loosing your job because you were in jail for a traffic ticket is an unreasonable punishment.

Current traffic law enforcement is only for raising money.

I'd like to see similar lawsuits in every city in Texas.

It's time to end these debtor prisons, AGAIN.

Tom Neal said...

I am not Unknown.
I am Tom Neal

Anonymous said...

Our city has this issue as well. Your recent articles with links to the actual Judicial Manual, Supreme Court rulings, etc, helped me educate the City Council on proper procedures.

Unfortunately, too many ignore the fact that they can go directly to their City Councils to address this growing problem.

After submitting all the documents, our Council is now working on ensuring that the JP and Muni-Judges understand the procedure and follow it.

Pat said...

There is no law that is in accord with the Organic Laws of this country that can force any man or woman into a contract nor take their God given rights away. The courts and those that work within them are assuming an authority that is not there. Just because the legislature passes something that looks like a law and they say it is a law does not qualify it without inspection. A non-constitutional law imposes no duty or authority.

Lee said...

I think that Anon 12:27 does have a slight point in that the reason that some many are in poverty is because they choose to have kids that they cant pay for. I did read through the petition and noted the woman that was pregnant and already had 6 kids. Beyond my understanding is why this woman needed 7 kids and why she chose to have a 7th child when she couldn't pay for the first 6. If those in poverty did not have children maybe the cycle of poverty would end.....? My point is that this specific woman chose to put herself in poverty by having so many kids and we need to distinguish between those who chose to put themselves in poverty by irresponsible behavior and those who fell into poverty through no fault of their own (for example someone with breast cancer and extensive medical bills that the insurance failed to cover or an involuntary loss of employment).