Monday, November 02, 2020

House committee considering Class C misdemeanor debt, arrests

In lieu of a public hearing (with the capitol still closed off from COVID), the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee announced it would accept written testimony regarding its Interim Charge #2 regarding Class C misdemeanor arrests, debt, and the use of citations in lieu of arrest for certain low-level Class Bs. I prepared testimony for the committee on behalf Just Liberty, check it out here. Here's a notable excerpt framing the situation through data (endnotes in original):

Class C misdemeanors as a whole have declined significantly in recent years, according to the Office of Court Administration’s Annual Statistical Report. Traffic and parking violations declined from 9.1 million in calendar-year 2006 to 5.3 million in 2019 – a 42% reduction. Another 1.1 million people received Class C citations last year. 

Cities vary widely in their reliance on traffic fines for revenue. An item in Forbes a few years ago calculated 2013 per-capita ticket revenue for US cities with more than 250,000 population: In El Paso, the city received $6.16 per capita from these sources; in Houston the per-capita figure was $17.89; Dallas, $32.58; Plano, by contrast, received $43.36 per capita. 
To what extent are Class C misdemeanors driving debtors-prison practices? In 2018, according to an Office of Court Administration data query, 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 in 2018 sat out their fines in jail compared to those who received indigency-based relief. Not all jail credit is problematic. Many defendants have traffic tickets cleared when they’re jailed for other charges, and this practice should continue.

But annual “warrant roundups” and the practice of arresting drivers with warrants at traffic stops can also snatch people out of their daily lives and incarcerate them until they are able to pay, or accumulate enough jail credit to be released. These practices are abusive toward the poor and should immediately cease.

Among the recommendations:

  • Eliminate or reform the Omnibase program suspending driver's licenses for nonpayment of fines and fees.
  • Increase the amount of jail credit received to pay off Class C fines from $100 per day to $500 per day.
  • Finally pass Sandra Bland legislation limiting arrests for Class C misdemeanors.
  • Require citations in lieu of arrests for the seven categories of Class B misdemeanors (including marijuana possession and driving with an invalid license) for which arrests were made optional in 2007.

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