Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Texans think justice system skewed against poor, support end to debtors-prison practices

Stagnant wages and empathy for economic struggles, combined with questions of pragmatism, have caused debtors-prison reform to emerge as a sleeper-hit with the public, judging from recent public-opinion assessments.

Yesterday, Grits cited a new poll which found that "81 percent of Texas registered voters believe the wealthy enjoy substantially better outcomes in the criminal justice than poor and working-class people." That's an overwhelming majority who believe that poor folks aren't treated fairly in the system.

These findings corroborate sentiments documented in a recent statewide survey conducted by the Texas Office of Court Administration:
  • Only one third (33%) agree that the average person can afford court costs and filing fees.
  • Slightly less than 3 in 10 (29%) agree that Texas courts treat people alike regardless of socio-economic status.
  • Two thirds (66%) disapprove of jailing people who owe court costs and filing fees when they cannot afford to pay.
So Texans think average people can't pay court costs, poor people are discriminated against, and the government should stop jailing people who can't pay debt to municipal courts.

Moreover, skewing government priorities toward debt collection has negative implications for public safety. For example, we know that cities that rely heavily on ticket revenue tend to have lower clearance rates on more serious crimes.

It's easy to see why the public thinks justice debt is such a big problem for low-income individuals. Earlier this year, the Federal Reserve estimated that 40 percent of Americans could not pay a surprise $400 bill without borrowing or going into debt. It's easy for municipal-court debt to exceed that amount. And many people owe more than that in delinquent Driver-Responsibility surcharges.

That's why, earlier this year, both Texas state political parties added platform planks advocating to stop jailing people for unpaid traffic ticket debt, instead sending unpaid bills to commercial collections. Roughly half-a-million people sat out traffic ticket debt in jail last year statewide, so that change would help out a lot of folks.

Clearly from these survey data, most Texans believe that jailing people for muni-court debt unfairly harms the poor and needs to stop. We'll find out over the next six months whether the Legislature will embrace this emerging, surprisingly popular view.


BarkGrowlBite said...

I strongly agree that we should stop jailing indigents for failure to pay traffic fines.

There is a substantial disagreement as to who constitutes an indigent. Many people, including judges, adhere to the concept that if you have a job and own a car, you are not an indigent. Nothing could be further from the truth. A parent with four or five children to support who can barely provide food and shelter is an indigent even though he or she has a job and a car. Such a parent can ill afford a traffic fine, even if he or she is offered the opportunity to pay the fine in installments.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Exactly, BGB. Not everyone in that 40% who can't afford $400 falls below the poverty line.

George said...

@BGB, I've often criticized you for some of your comments/views on Grits, but today I must commend you on your comments on this topic. I agree with you 100%!

Anonymous said...

I remember when a lawyer told me "how much justice can you afford?"

In Virginia I saw a poor man demand that a judge give him the maximum sentence after he threw a rock through the police station window. He said he wanted the state to pay his monthly prescription costs that he could never hope to afford. Yes, a man can fight city hall.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone read the article in the Dallas paper on the fight over the Paxton prosecution pay and the resent article on the court appointed attorney in Houston being told he is spending to many hours working for his client (sorry can't remember the paper)?

I thought is vividly showed how the system is skewed, some Judge wants to break the fee schedule for whatever his reasons, no big deal for him. He won't be held criminally liable for fiduciary crime while the tax payer is on the hook, although Paxton might be held liable for a fiduciary crime, ironic isn't it.

On the other hand a lawyer who asks for funds to investigate the charges against his clients is admonished by the court for spending too many hours working on their behalf?

To me it's clear that no individual should expect justice or fair treatment in the Justice system unless of course you're a part of the Justice system, then you get a free pass.

Anonymous said...

Indigent frail seniors can sometimes get relief by applying to the PACE program that is run by Medicare and Medicaid. This results in many expenses being taken off other family members and the whole family's financial situation is improved. Texas is slow to inform indigent people about this program (imagine that) and many social workers are unaware of it as well. PACE stands for "Programs of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly" and is described on page 68 of the 2019 MEDICARE & YOU handbook.

After being tortured to the state of impaired cognition by TDCJ my relative was doctor certified as needing nursing home level care and was admitted to the PACE program some five months ago. All elderly TDCJ survivors should contact their local social workers about the PACE program.

P. Ghosh said...

When is the State of Texas ever going to wake the hell up. 30 years ago they ranked 48th and education after the enactment of the Texas lottery they now ranked 43rd that's after three decades and you folks are sitting here talking about the mistreated you've got to be kidding me this is a state that thrives on ignorance. Texas Cash cow is crippled with failure in the courts on landmark class action civil rights lawsuits with the 22 heat-related deaths. Ken Paxton is still attorney general after going on his second term with three felony indictments for treasury fraud is violated laws that he actually help and act and you folks are wondering about whether the treatment of the poor if still valid 2015 they repeal the law that was saddling 100000 children per year with criminal charges for truancy and you folks are wondering if the poor are being mistreated and we have an attorney general that is still in office when will you folks ever wake up? his friends donated $500,000 to defend him because his friends not only need him there but he can actually hurt them and help them as he stays in office, and at the rate of the of the prosecution he may never go to court. This is a man who showed up in Dallas the day police were ambushed and murdered and when the media discovered the Texas attorney general was available when they asked him what happened he said he did not know!