Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Texans incarcerated thousands of years over traffic-ticket debt

In 2018, according to Office of Court Administration data, 524,628 people satisfied Class C misdemeanor fines and fees through jail credit.

By contrast, despite legislation passed in 2017 to make it easier for judges to waive fines and provide community service options, only 53,773 people had their fines waived for indigency in 2018, and 97,260 avoided fines with partial or full credit for community service.

So more than three times as many people last year sat out their fines in jail compared to those who received indigency-based relief. But we know many more people than that struggle to pay traffic fines. Last year, the Federal Reserve estimated that 40 percent of Americans could not pay a surprise $400 bill without borrowing or going into debt.

The OCA provided no data on how long those getting "jail credit" were incarcerated. Grits thinks a reasonable estimated average may be two days. Most people will only be in jail one day, but some will be in much longer, with jail credit satisfying their fines at a statutory rate of $100/day. 

Based on an estimated 2-day average length of stay, Texans spent 2,875 bed years incarcerated for petty Class C tickets in 2018, at a cost of ~$63 million. That's a significant, hidden expense generated by the current system.

There are additional, unintended consequences to jailing hundreds of thousands of people over debt collection: Research shows that cities which rely on low-level fines as revenue sources tend to solve more serious crimes at lower rates.

Regular readers know that, in 2018, both the Republican and Democratic party platforms in Texas called for eliminating arrests for non-payment of Class C misdemeanor debt, using commercial debt collection methods instead. And an Office of Court Administration poll last year found that 2/3 of Texans oppose arresting people who can't pay court debts.

There's nothing sacred about government debt. When Texans can't pay their Visa or cable bill, those companies don't get to incarcerate them until they come up with the money, and neither should the government. Grits expects legislation to be filed soon addressing this populist (and popular) bipartisan priority. That's necessary to prevent more than a half-million Texans from going to jail next year over unpaid Class C misdemeanor debt.


Dick said...

I was blown away with the figure you provided. More than half a million people in Texas sitting out fines in jail. All in 2018. I knew this was a problem. I didn't know the extent. I remember when I worked for the Waco Tribune-Herald in the late 90s as a cops reporter I would see arrest reports for those failure to appear warrants -- on overdue library books! How insane! Great report

Anonymous said...

Long overdue, very long overdue, and hope that legislation can be passed making it happen.