Thursday, March 02, 2017

Bill bows to pragmatism, overburdened muni, JP courts to help indigent

One of the first bills up in the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee this year, HB 351 by Rep. Terry Canales, would eliminate certain "Debtors Prison" practices in Texas municipal and Justice of the Peace courts related to indigence and Class C misdemeanors. (HB 50 by Corrections Committee Chairman James White is an identical bill.) The bill is on the agenda for Monday's CrimJur hearing.

In particular, HB 351 would eliminate the requirement that judges wait until a defendant has defaulted on payments before declaring them indigent, making them eligible for community service or to have their fees waived at the time of sentencing instead of waiting for them to fail.

As it happens, the most detailed explication of these problems comes from a Grits for Breakfast guest post by Ted Wood, formerly of the Office of Court Administration and now at the Harris County Public Defender Office. Read it for more background.

To Grits, this is a question of values. What does the court want? What is its purpose? Maximizing income, or justice? HB 351 reverses the priorities expressed in the current law, untying judges' hands and allowing them to dispense with cases more efficiently and responsibly.

If the defendant is indigent at the time of sentencing and there's no reasonable expectation they'll be able to pay, what's the point of fining them anyway and only accommodating their indigence when they default? At that point, a warrant is issued. So all of a sudden, someone the court knew couldn't pay when they were sentenced may be jailed for nonpayment if they don't come back before the judge to set up an arrangement that logic and common sense would dictate should have been done in the first place.

Basically current Texas law is designed to squeeze as much money as possible from indigent people before affording them the accommodation (via waiving fines or letting defendants work them off through community service) that the constitution and practicality require.

HB 351 isn't a major bill, but it's a really good one. Hope it passes.

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