Friday, May 20, 2016

Failed litigation may still spur debtors prison reforms in Austin

Though litigation against debtors prison policies in Austin municipal courts was thrown out because of, essentially, a technicality (the question of the constitutionality of jailing indigents to collect fines and fees remains unaddressed; a federal court instead ruled that municipal judges are not city policymakers and therefore can't be sued), the allegations brought by the Texas Fair Defense Project continue to make waves. Reported the Austin Statesman's Jazmine Ulloa:
the lawsuit has set in motion efforts to examine and change procedures within Austin’s municipal courts.

City leaders and civil rights lawyers say it’s not a matter of avoiding further litigation: They want Austin to be among the first communities to tackle what has become a national problem.

Texas law and two unanimous Supreme Court decisions prohibit courts from jailing people because they cannot afford to pay their fines. But many cities have ordinances on municipal court fees that violate those orders. Others give full discretion on payment collection to judges who skirt the law.

Courts across the nation are facing lawsuits over municipal court policies that plaintiffs say have turned jails into modern-day debtors prisons. The issue is brewing in political forums, among academia, in courtrooms and in civic conversations at every level of government.
In addition, reported Ulloa, "El Paso and Amarillo have been sued over their policies, while a report commissioned by Mayor Sylvester Turner in Houston found that the city, like Austin, rarely reduces or waives payment."San Antonio's municipal courts were praised for having eliminated jail time for nonpayment:
“Contrary to fears, there were no spikes in traffic crimes, and the city did not lose revenue,” [Judge John] Bull said.

In 2014, San Antonio’s Municipal Court dropped $327,514 in misdemeanor fines because the offenders were too poor to pay, criminal justice experts said. That same year, Austin’s Municipal Court reported that it didn’t reduce or waive any fines for that reason.
Soon, I want to sit down with Rebecca Bernhardt from the Texas Fair Defense Project, perhaps for another podcast, to talk through the various litigation going on related to fees, bail, and other drivers of local county jail incarceration. There's a lot more interest in these topics now than any time in my adult lifetime - maybe more than there ever will be again. It'd be a shame to waste the moment of opportunity.

MORE: See an op ed from one of the plaintiffs in the case that was dismissed in Austin.

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