Monday, April 11, 2016

Momentum growing to confront debtors prison dilemma

College Station muni court Judge Edward Spillane had a terrific column in the Washington Post over the weekend titled, "Why I refuse to send people to jail for failure to pay fines." Readers may recall Grits had reacted earlier to a column Spillane wrote for the Austin Statesman, and in an email, Spillane generously declared that that post "and comments in the blog were beneficial in writing this" article, which I appreciated. Here's a notable excerpt:
Judges might also be unlikely to dismiss fees because municipalities have become so dependent on the revenue — as in Washington state, where interest rates on unpaid fees are 12 percent, or in Ferguson, where revenue from court fees increased 80 percent in two years. Courts “are not an ATM for the city council,” says Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, who co-chairs a national task force on fines, fees and bail. “You’re not supposed to be funding your operation from fines or fees.” But, she says, “judges want to have decent facilities. They want to have support staff. It may very well be that local funding sources . . . have said, ‘You’ve got to pay for your own keep.’ That’s not the way it should be.”

The judges I’ve spoken with who jail these defendants fall into several categories. Some simply do not understand the requirement to hold indigency hearings. One judge told BuzzFeed that in nine years on the bench, she’d never given a defendant an alternative to jail, and she insisted that she was not required to offer one. But O’Connor says there’s “no excuse” for judges to be ignorant of the law, thanks to the training and continuing educational opportunities available to them. “If they don’t know, then they weren’t listening.”

Others know the law but agree to jail defendants who say they’d prefer it to community service, which is still not allowed under law. And some look upon granting alternative sentences and waiving fines as a slippery slope to not taking crime seriously. My experience with defendants has been exactly the opposite.
At the Houston Chronicle, Bobby Cervantes today has an item reacting to Judge Spillane's piece. His article opened with this promising assessment:
The strides Texas policymakers have made in recent years on criminal justice reform have been one of the few bright spots on the state’s record nationally. They can be some of the most complicated issues each legislative session – from decriminalizing truancy to trashing the ‘pick-a-pal’ system in grand jury selection last year – but they are largely seen as worth the effort when it’s all done.

There has been one issue on this front that has, so far in the interim, gotten so much attention from Republicans and Democrats alike that it can be placed atop a to-do list for lawmakers next session, and there’s mounting evidence that they can’t look away anymore. Modern-day debtors’ prisons, where someone is locked up because he can’t pay a fine levied by a court, have sprouted up around the state. They have served, by all accounts, to make poor Texans that much poorer, by interrupting their lives and jobs and sending them to jail for failing to pay a tab they never were going to meet.

Target No. 1 is the Driver Responsibility Program, which came under bipartisan fire earlier this year for requiring drivers who are convicted of certain traffic offenses to pay an added annual fee on top of the court fines already imposed by a judge. If they can’t, they lose their driver’s license, a situation that has left an estimated 1.3 million drivers without valid licenses, according to a civil rights group.
From your keyboard to God's ear, Bobby!


Anonymous said...

Don't forget the Community Service free slave labor racket. In Harris County, any non-profit can apply for free laborers from Probation Department (it helps if you now a judge) to perform free labor and other menial tasks for your organization, be it a fund raiser, festival, or other event. Saves you the hassle of getting volunteers to set up chairs, tents, etc.

Anonymous said...

^^^^Here's an even better idea. Let's just stop punishing criminals and lawbreakers altogether. Problem solved!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@5:33, what an incredibly original retort! Clearly that's what the Republican ex-prosecutor muni judge from College Station was advocating. Except for the fact that it's half-witted rubbish. you've made an excellent point.

Jim Stott said...

Unfortunately, the entire criminal justice system is reliant on the almighty dollar to stay afloat. Allowing the courts the latitude, and probation departments the discretion to financially review cases and assess an offenders ability to pay helps. But, it also reduces operational funding if fees are waived in lieu of an alternative, like community service. Most, if not all, CSCD's struggle to make ends meet. Their operation (and reputation with the victims and the community) is reliant on collecting most of the 30 + fees that offenders may be assessed. In my experience, most offenders cannot pay (as opposed to refuse to pay), and the departments and the courts are left with a dilemma. Extend the case for certain fees (such as restitution), implement alternatives or punish the offender. This has long been an issue and needs serious debate.

Unknown said...

When I started Judging. A fine only offence (Class C misdemeanor) Court Cost $6.50 + fine range $1-$200.
The idea was a Judge determines what the fine is based on the offence and the ability to pay.
Now: Court Cost Up to $112 + fine range $1 - $500. ++ Surcharges on certain offences.
The idea is the criminal pays for the system in court cost. Many of the Fine amounts (part that goes to city or county) has stayed the same, or even dropped in some cases.

He's Innocent said...


Would you please consider including confinement for failure to pay child support when you are arguing against debtors prisons? This too is a shoot yourself in the foot type situation.

When a convicted person is jailed for non-payment of fines/fees/etc, they then fall behind on child support payments too. Incarceration itself is a huge problem that interrupts child support as well; yet, the AG's office is all too happy to haul your butt into court and threaten incarceration for non-payment. What the hell good does that do?

And last, let me bring to light the fact that divorced noncustodial parents who end up incarcerated are not allowed to suspend child support obligations. Yet, were the parents still married, the parent left behind gets no support from the spouse while they are incarcerated. Tough noogies says the state! I realize some are going to think "Oh, he went out and committed crime just to avoid child support"...... Yeah, well anyone who has had a loved one incarcerated, or has been incarcerated knows that prison is a poor alternative to paying child support. Anyone who DOES think this is likely a poor parental unit anyway, so not likely a big loss.

My spouse asked for a 3k loan to buy tools in order to get a job in fiber optics. We/he was denied due to being behind on child support. So yeah, that makes a lot of sense... right? Deny him the ability to make $25/hour to pay down that debt and force him to keep working at $10/hour jobs. So smart. He owes 20k, and we'll never get it paid off before his child is an adult because we are paying fines/fees as well.

The AG's office of child support enforcement is also a debtors prison racket meant to be only a point of bragging about how much has been collected from "deadbeat parents". I call bullshit and ask Grits to include this in his posts about debtors prisons.

Thanks for all you do Grits. You are awesome beyond what any of your fans can express!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Jim, are there metrics reported to TDCJ that might reveal how often probation terms are extended so people can pay fees? How can we quantify/research that?

Thomas, I'm curious: are you related to the late Kathryn and W.M. Shamburger out of FBC-Tyler?

Good points, HI, I've written on that topic a few times over the years, fwiw.

Jim Stott said...

Scott, I seriously doubt such a statistic exists, even in the local CSCD's. I think extensions for fee balances is happening less in recent years. Several years ago, retention of offenders because they were "good payers" or were being extended with no hope of ever paying their balances was a somewhat hot topic, I believe in Senate Criminal Justice. Allegations were made at that time that untold thousands of offenders were being kept on probation because they were either "good payers" or were being extended with no hope of ever collecting the fees. While unfounded, it resulted in many courts being more supportive of waiving fines, costs and other assorted fees, if (in the opinion of the CSO) an offender had done his best to take care of that obligation. However, all of this does little to address the financial dilemma CSCD's must face because of the weight that is placed on those fee collections.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Jim, I don't recall those as "allegations" so much as just what probation directors said they had to do because of reliance on fees for funding. Maybe not in your shop, but I've heard that from directors and POs, for years, not just from advocates. It was the big critique of early release provisions in the '07 reforms.

CSCDs situation reminds me a bit of the public defender fiasco in Louisiana where it is funded by traffic fine revenue and when it declined they couldn't pay lawyers. We have this unsustainable funding structure that encourages oversupervision because of economic incentives and pursuit of good public policy ironically leaves them strapped.

Jim Stott said...

The reliance on fees for operations is exactly the problem. And it was definitely an issue in our local CSCD, as it was in most others. While I can only speak for our local department, retaining offenders for their excellent record of paying fees was not an issue for us. We did not over estimate our budget for fee collections. However, the reliance on probation fees for department operation is something, I believe, which should be addressed and debated to find alternatives. Don't get me wrong. Offenders should be held accountable to victims of their crimes, but there has to be a way to change the status quo that benefits the system without jeopardizing safety or financially ruining lives.