Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Debtors prison and the Great Texas Warrant Roundup

Following up on criticisms by the Justice Department regarding the use of arrest warrants to enforce payment of fines and fees, CBS News had a story yesterday titled "How you could go to debtor's prison in the U.S.." Here's a notable excerpt:
"These practices are rampant across the country, most recently in Louisiana," Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a senior counsel with the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, said. "Fees and fines emerged as a powerful funding mechanism when state legislatures balked at raising revenue."

An increasing number of states and localities look to close budget gaps through fees and fines accessed through the criminal justice system. The scenario has created a cottage industry of for-profit probation companies like JCS, which oversee payment plans and collect fines and fees on behalf of municipalities.

In 2010, the ACLU found "this troubling trend in five states, and since then an additional three to four states," Choudhury said. "In 2015 alone, the ACLU and its affiliates filed lawsuits in Georgia, Mississippi, Washington and Michigan," she said. "This is a problem that truly spans the country."

"Since the Great Recession we've seen a dramatic rise. What we've seen is hard-pressed state and local governments increasingly relying on fine and fee collection to fill budget gaps," Choudhury said. "There's a conflict of interest when government is collecting money it depends on but is also charged with enforcing fair and impersonal criminal justice. So, courts should not be revenue generators and neither should the police."
The article included this excellent quote from anti-tax maven Grover Norquist offering a cops-as-tax-collectors meme:
The issue has fostered an alliance between civil rights groups and conservative activist Grover Norquist, with the president of Americans for Tax Reform speaking at the same December panel as Lynch.

"When I was a kid," Norquist said, "my parents always said if you have trouble, go to the policeman, he's your friend. I've never heard it said about IRS agents. Yet we've turned at the local level a lot of the police force into tax collectors."
In Texas, the latest manifestation of this practice came in the annual "Great Texas Warrant Roundup" earlier this month, which is timed to tap debtors around the time they may be getting a tax refund. From the ACLU of Texas:
The State’s unreasonable traffic ticket scheme and the devastation it can wreak on low-income Texans receive considerably less attention.

Depending on the jurisdiction, a ticket for failing to signal a lane change—the pretext for Sandra Bland’s tragic traffic stop—will cost you around $66. But the State tacks on $103 in court costs and a host of fees, some bordering on Kafkaesque. Texas will charge you a public defender fee, even though courts refuse to appoint a public defender for traffic ticket cases. If your fine is already too expensive to afford, Texas charges a fee to put you on a payment plan. You’ll even pay an “administrative fee” for the privilege of handing money over to the court. For people who are too poor to pay their tickets, that $66 fine can grow to over $500.

If you can’t afford to keep up with these fees, the State will suspend renewal of your driver’s license (add another $30 for the License Renewal Suspension Fee), and you’ll be unable to register your car, making it illegal for you to drive to the job you need to take care of your kids and pay off your spiraling debt. An expired registration means you’re certain to be pulled over and put back at square one, with new tickets, new fines, new fees, and no hope.

Case in point: Valerie Gonzales, one of the original plaintiffs represented by the Texas Fair Defense Project in a class action lawsuit against the City of Austin. Valerie is a 31-year-old mother of five children with disabilities. She and her family live in poverty. After receiving two traffic tickets nine years ago, not only had Valerie’s tickets multiplied and her fines ballooned into the thousands of dollars, she lost a job after she was unconstitutionally jailed without the benefit of a court-appointed attorney.

When people like Valerie are arrested in the coming warrant roundup, judges across Texas will follow their usual plan of demanding a payment in exchange for liberty. Without asking questions about financial circumstances, judges literally order people to turn over all the money they happen to be holding when they are arrested. “Give me what’s in your pockets” is not a phrase that should be uttered in a courtroom. What’s worse, when the working poor don’t have enough money to hand over, judges send them to jail without a fair hearing or a second thought.


Anonymous said...

Texas and the Austin city are ridiculous in their arrogant stupidity. This place is becoming more like a cross between West Virginia and Mississippi. Does anyone here give a crap about anything more than tacos, BBQ, sports teams, festivals, self indulgence and the only important right, just ask them, their bastardized view of the 2nd Amendment. This chapter of thievery and wealth grabbing should fit in well with the land grabbers during the civil war which only the gentry wanted. Then slavery, then using the Buffalo soldiers to fight their genocide of the native American Indians of the land before it became a cesspool of mediocrity headed south quickly. This list of very bad things is endless, fracking, water capture, trophy animal farming on their "ranches", laughable.

Anonymous said...

Just as disturbing is the Title IV Funding provided in the Juvenile Justice Departments and the CPS system. Newborns of poverty stricken parents are the easiest to be acquired by CPS, as they are the easiest to put out for adoption. That said, in order to get your child back one must pay for some of the required classes to "prove" your a good parent, lose work due to the scheduling of the classes, hope that your court appointed attorney isn't on the side of the court where their fees are paid by the court, and assume the guardian ad litem is also an "adoption attorney". Don't forget that the CASA volunteers report what they are told to, as there is lots of money to be made there, all in the name of "protecting our most vulnerable".
Not to say that some horrendous abuse doesn't actually occur in some homes and that CPS does rescue children in true need of someone to defend them. but when home studies are done by outside agencies who bill the courts and state for their decisions, when parents have to pay a $50 dollar fee every two weeks to visit their child for an hour at the court house under constant supervision with every detail written down by the supervisor as you play and visit your child for one hour, something is definitely wrong there too!!!
And lets not forget those "toll roads" and what can happen if you don't have a TX Toll Pass on your car, that can really add up to some bucks, especially if you buy a different car and forget to change your information. Try calling the hot line and stay on hold for hours or let a loved one call you from a state imposed recovery center collect. ..the list goes on and on and on in the great State of Texas!

Anonymous said...

Oh and don't forget the reinstatement fee anywhere between $100 to $250 to get your driver's licenses back! Oh and the SR22 and the 3 years of surcharges! Oh and by the way they suspend your licenses another full year! DPS has suggested to the legislators to allow them to take property from these poor offenders to cover these surcharges. I think the whole world has gone mad! Maybe we should bring back the horse/buggy to get around. I'm sure the great state of Texas would find a way to take your money and your horse!

Anonymous said...

I do believe that it is against the law to put people in prison for a debt, am I wrong?

Unknown said...

You cannot be put in jail or prison for inability to pay consumer debt. Traffic tickets that have turned into warrants are not considered consumer debt....I do not believe. I have a disabled veteran as a neighbor. He received a speeding ticket and running a red light warninh back 2012. He was taking his wife to the hospital who was sick with a liver condition. The officer was polite enough to issue a warning for the light however, the speeding stuck. He lives on a small disability check and was unable to keep up his payment arrangements. Long story short... he showed me a pink postcard he received in the mail. The postcard provided him 3 days to pay or face potential arrest. It is ridiculous the amount off fees added.