Thursday, March 16, 2017

Jailing for debt, prison oversight, 'penal populism,' and other stories

Here are a few odds and ends which merit Grits readers' attention while mine is focused elsewhere:

Stop jailing Texans for debt
The Texas Tribune's Jonathan Silver has a story on the ramifications of HB 1125 by Rep. James White, discussed earlier on Grits here, which would forbid arrests for nonpayment of Class C misdemeanor fines. Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa filed a companion on the eastern side of the building. The use of jail to collect debt was the subject of an excellent recent report from our friends at the Texas Fair Defense Project and Texas Appleseed. That document makes the case for this legislation better than I could in a few sentences, so check it out for more background. Great bill.

First look at prison oversight
The House Corrections Committee this afternoon will hear HB 1421 by Rep. Jarvis Johnson to create an independent ombudsman for TDCJ comparable to the one aimed at juvenile facilities which was created after the 2007 sex-assault scandals. Borris Miles has the companion in the senate. Any skepticism I've had over the model has been long ago quelled by how the ombudsman functions on the juvenile side. And after repeated stories of inmates dying for lack of an asthma inhaler, heat related deaths, or being beaten or starved or sexually assaulted, Grits is convinced this is the best way to get a handle on the sprawling agency's problems. No fiscal note has been posted as of this writing, but financial arguments may be the proposal's Achilles heel in a session with budgetary red ink flowing like wine. One can make a strong argument it could save money in the long term - an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure - but maybe not in the first two-year cycle.

Harris to provide lawyers for the poor at bail hearings
The installation of public defenders at bail hearings for the indigent in Harris County is a major step forward. This would have never happened without litigation from the Texas Fair Defense Project and Civil Rights Corps. Now that the issue is out in the open, the Legislature should require it statewide.

More detail on new Harris County pot rules
Not everybody benefits.

For the data geeks
Some new BJS publications for the data nerds among you:
Penal Populism: Rise of the Dicks
The phrase "penal populism" is new to me, but the concept is familiar. Wikipedia defines it as the "process whereby the major political parties compete with each other to be 'tough on crime'." This academic article argues that penal populism corrupts democratic institutions and wastes resources on counterproductive and even harmful punishment measures, constituting an "attack on the long established link between reason and modern punishment." Yup.


  1. Your heading of "Penal Populism: Rise of the Dicks" made me thing that you were going to blog about this:

  2. Grits, I agree with you in principle about not jailing people who can't pay their fines. But what would motivate ANYONE to pay a fine if there is no threat of being arrested? And it follows that if I don't have to go to jail for paying a fine, or failure to appear, why would I worry about obeying traffic laws in the first place?

    Not trying to be facetious here, but I just want to know what you think a good alternative would be.

  3. @4:06, lots of debts get paid without threat of jail. Why do you pay your overdue phone bill? So you can continue to receive services. That will be the main incentive here, I'd imagine.

    Other states do this, with traffic offenses as civil instead of criminal penalties. Texas wouldn't be tilling new soil.

  4. @Lee, I'm definitely against that bill. I don't want them to criminalize any of my pastimes.

  5. @ Anonymous And if a person who cannot pay sits in jail, how will the fine be paid? Judges and Prosecutors need to stop being rubber stamp or assembly line in the punishment phase. There are plenty of options available like community service. Only jurisdictions that rely on the fine money for a revenue source would be against alternatives, and no jurisdiction should use fine money as a revenue source. Hell, fines should be the alternative to community service or whatever other punishment they dole out.

  6. So, @4:06 what 'services' will be denied those who don't pay their fines or do community service? Grits would argue that we shouldn't take their licenses away because without being able to drive, they won't be able to go to work to pay their fines or get to where they do community service.

    David White is right, they can't pay fines while sitting in jail, and there are other options. I just want to know what happens to those who don't comply with whatever sentence the court doles out.

    We seem to agree that we should try to keep people out of jail for "fine only" offenses but no one seems to have an answer as to what will motivate offenders to pay their fines or do their community service. Hell, if there are no consequences, I just plan to drive as I see fit and put any traffic tickets I get into the circular file!

  7. Seize assets from those that delight in being terminal "dead weighters" and eventually they will bless another state with their residency.

  8. Anon 12:01:00..that was an idiotic comment. Try to be productive.

  9. Without something more than finger wagging as a consequence, there will be no reason for people to report to community service either. And the bone heads thinking setting $25/hour as the payoff rate for minimum wage level community service of pushing a broom, picking up roadside trash, or even graffiti abatement should note that no matter how much the rate is, many just won't show without jail as a threat behind it. But my personal take is that community service should be the first resort for such offenses, no fine allowed since it's too easy for most responsible people to send in the payment, a few days work under the Texas sun might slow some habitual offenders down a notch or two.

  10. If anyone or anything ever needed independent oversight, its TDCJ. While its not that unusual for bureaucrats to be arrogant and think that they have unlimited power and are accountable to no one, TDCJ is the worst I've ever seen.

  11. Despite comments here, every substantive indication out there shows any bills weakening surcharges or vastly overhauling current criminal justice practices is essentially DOA as the legislature wastes tremendous amounts of time on bathroom bills and pensions of cities unable to handle their own business. My prediction is that over 90 to 95% of all CJ bills will not pass this session, those that do will be watered down to the point where most of us will ask ourselves why we bothered.

  12. Prison oversight might include acknowledgement of the preferred torture method by TDCJ guards-----bouncing the heads of inmates off concrete floors and restroom walls while their hands are handcuffed behind them. Perception is that the inmate's hair will hide the swelling and bruises-----and the neurological damage will be dealt with by the family that has to take care of an invalid years later.