Friday, August 18, 2017

More on limiting debtors prisons practices

The Texas Municipal Courts Education Center has issued a summary of new debtors-prison reform legislation (HB 351/SB 1923) as well as guidance related to various laws governing expunction of juvenile records. Check them out here.

RELATED: In the latest Reasonably Suspicious podcast (beginning at the 12:08 mark), I interviewed the Texas Fair Defense Project's Emily Gerrick on what local judges can do beyond that new law to limit debtors-prison practices in Texas. I asked Edward Spillane, Presiding Judge of municipal courts in College Station, for his thoughts on her suggestions, and here's how he replied:
Emily made a number of excellent points. I'm excited that the new legislation will encourage a broader use of the waiver and community service processes judges have. I wish the surcharge program had gone away but now judges can end more easily the financial burdens defendants face from fines, fees and drivers license holds. I would include particularly Indigent defendants but also those defendants struggling with other hardships such as mental illness or a loss of a loved one, a family member who is sick or any other strain making it hard for defendants to carry out their sentence. The new legislation also mandates that courts are a safe haven for those under warrant and who come to court. That is a big step along with the various new procedures courts must perform before issuing failure to appear or capias pro fine warrants. Progress may seem slow but these legislative changes will make all our courts more just and fair places for citizens.
In a few days, I'll post the full interview with Ms. Gerrick, which was informative and educational on several levels.


Anonymous said...

I thought debtors prisons related to the historic practice of using government prisons to help collect private debts between private parties. Am I missing something in this discussion?

Soronel Haetir said...

Yes, the term has been co-opted in hopes of riding the distaste associated with the historic practice.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@SH and 4:24, As well as because the fact of jailing as a response for debt is identical from the perspective of the jailed debtor, whether the obligation is to the government or a private actor. (Keep in mind, the max punishment for Class Cs is a fine, not jail time - these are just money debts for low-level "crimes.")

True: A poor person owes a private company money and they can't be jailed. But if they owe the government money because of unpaid Class C misdemeanor fines, it's the most likely outcome if they cannot pay.

I'm not sure what distinction between the two situations makes you think the term isn't accurate or warranted. It's pretty much exactly what's going on.

Newbie blogger said...

ANSWER...take the time to listen, learn and administer individual justice to individual people and individual cases... I think it's called "DUE PROCESS".

Anonymous said...

I think the distinction here is that fines are a form of punishment for a criminal offense although in many instances the offense might be relatively minor. Without the prospect of jail, many defendants would have no real incentive to pay the fine. I suppose you might suggest that the government should be limited to the same collection remedies that private litigants and creditors are. To that I say that many of these civil debtors are effectively judgment proof because they have few or no non-exempt assets. I would add that many of the same people who aren't willing to pay their fine are also not willing to perform community service in lieu of a fine. So you're still left with a situation where, without the prospect of jail, there's no real consequence to minor criminal infractions. If your real agenda is simply to decriminalize certain behaviors so there is no consequence at all, then you should just say so.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

What if that's not my real agenda, 9:51, it's just what anonymous critics prefer to attribute rather than confront the actual arguments being made? Listen to the specific things Ms. Gerrick suggested. None of them involved decriminalizing anything. That's YOU projecting because you have no reasonable retort to what's actually being said.