Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Blessed are the Poor: Examining opposition to debtors-prison legislation

Texas State Sen. Paul Bettencourt was quoted by the Associated Press (June 11) criticizing debtors-prison legislation (SB 1913) which he and five others voted against in the senate. He:
said that it did not adequately consider “personal responsibility” and that it provided too much leeway for judges to waive fines. 
“Current law already allows a court to work with indigent defendants who are truly unable to pay court imposed fines,” said Bettencourt, a Houston Republican.
Let's flesh this criticism out. Here's what the bill does that Bettencourt is criticizing:

Under current law, if a defendant is indigent and unable to pay a Class C misdemeanor fine, the judge cannot waive the fine or authorize community service at sentencing. Instead, insensibly, they must order the indigent defendant - whom everyone in the room knows cannot afford it - to pay the full fine, anyway. This judicial fiction drags the process out for weeks or months while everyone waits for the inevitable default.

Then, at that point, if the defendant comes back into court, the judge may waive fines and/or order community service. But many defendants are afraid to return to court for fear of being jailed. Often, warrants are issued instead and the defendant doesn't come back to court until the next warrant roundup or when they're pulled over at a traffic stop. The Office of Court Administration's David Slayton told the AP, “Our belief is that people don’t go to court because they think they’ll automatically get jail time if they can’t pay.”

So when Sen. Bettencourt says, "Current law already allows a court to work with indigent defendants," he's leaving something out: The law actually forbids judges from working with defendants at sentencing, insisting they must impose fines even when the debtor cannot pay. The extra leeway he deplores giving judges would simply let them waive fines and impose community service at sentencing instead of waiting for an all-but inevitable default. The former Houston Controller's Harris County Tax Assessor's goal appears to be to drag the process out so the state can bleed every last dime out of indigent defendants before granting them constitutionally mandated relief. That's cruel and pointless.

Once Class C defendants default, it's true, the court is authorized to "work with" defendants down the line if they do not pay up. But Bettencourt's preferred status-quo approach needlessly extends by weeks or months a process that should take a single hearing. Moreover, it results in many thousands of arrest warrants for indigent defendants who default on a payment plan, and is an affront to common sense and judicial economy. The governor should sign this important bill.

MORE: See an op ed from College Station municipal judge Edward Spillane and former District Judge John Delaney in support of debtor-prison reform legislation. Here's a notable excerpt:
In Texas, fewer than 2 percent of all cases in municipal and justice courts are currently resolved with community service. One in every eight cases is resolved at least partly with jail credit. It is better for communities if people to have more access to community service and avoid going to jail just because they cannot afford to pay a ticket. 
SB 1913 will also ensure that in circumstances where it’s appropriate, judges no longer should wait for a defendant to default on debt before considering whether to waive some or all of what is owed. 
Texas has a well-earned reputation for being tough on crime — but that doesn’t mean we should be putting people in jail because they simply don’t have the money to pay their court bill. We need to be tough and fair. SB 1913 doesn’t mean giving anyone a hand out; it means tailoring sentences and allowing people who can’t pay their bills to work it off in another way. 
SB 1913 will also save Texas cities and counties money. When someone is put in jail for nonpayment of a fine or fee, we all end up footing the bill. This legislation will make it less likely that people go to jail for failing to pay and more likely that they will comply with their sentences. If judges can work with people on plans that make sense for their individual circumstances, they won’t end up in jail — and taxpayers won’t need to be charged for their unnecessary jail costs.
SB 1913 will also decrease the amount of time and energy that peace officers spend tracking down people for unpaid traffic tickets by reducing the number of warrants for unpaid tickets. Currently, 95 percent of the warrants issued in Texas come from fine-only cases, most of which stem from traffic tickets.
NUTHER UPDATE (6/15): This legislation was signed today!! 


Charles Kuffner said...

Minor correction: Sen. Paul Bettencourt never served as Houston City Controller. Sen. Sylvia Garcia served three terms in that office, but not Bettencourt. His previous office was Harris County Tax Assessor. The city of Houston may be blamed for many things, but not for Paul Bettencourt. :-)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks Kuff, I'd misremembered. Fixed in text.

Anonymous said...

Bettencourt's goal " appears to be to drag the process out so the state can bleed every last dime out of indigent defendants before granting them constitutionally mandated relief," but how much is it costing Texas counties to jail these Class C defendants? Not to mention the police resources it takes to arrest and book them. Sheesh!

Anonymous said...

The Supreme Court and lower courts have already held that an indigent person can't be forced to provide community service or jail in lieu of a fine if the indigent person can't pay. That is because a person who can pay won't be forced into community service or jail because they can pay the fine, so based on equal protection an indigent person shouldn't be forced into slavery or community service because they can't pay the fine. The indigent person, however, must do what he or she can to advise the judge of his or her inability to pay. If the indigent can pay, for example, $5 per month or nothing as appropriate, that could be sufficient to stay out of jail if the judge follows the Constitution.

Lee said...

Grits? What up with thee? Is everything ok?

10 days and no new posts?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Hey Lee. Just took a short vacation and didn't announce it. Back in the saddle this week.

That said, Grits posting rate has plummeted with the new job. Haven't had nearly as much time for it this year.