Austin Moving Away From Jailing Indigent Defendants

August 20, 2016 by

In an effort to move away from modern day debtors’ prisons, Austin City Council approved a resolution authored by Council Member Delia Garza urging municipal courts to make every effort to avoid jailing people who lack the ability to pay their fines. The goal is to increase focus on alternative methods of payment for low-level offenders, and create a tracking system for indigent defendants.

The resolution provides a 90-day planning period for the city to clearly define what it means to be indigent in Austin, and make clear that defendants whose only punishment is a fine cannot be jailed for failure to pay unless the municipal judge has determined through a hearing that the defendant is not indigent.

The resolution’s suggested indigent defendant definition is anyone making less than twice the federal poverty level or, $23,000 per year for a family in Austin. But in realizing one size does not fit all, municipal judges will be further empowered to determine if a defendant whose income is above that threshold can be determined indigent due to other circumstances.

Federal and state law require a defendant’s ability, or inability, to pay to be factored in during sentencing, but – as we wrote on a while back – that is often ignored. Giving judges marginally more discretion in this area will hopefully prove transformative.

The council measure is meant to help those who are jailed for not being able to pay for violations such as parking tickets, moving violations, building without a permit, and other low-level offenses. While some offenders obviously just choose to not pay fines, most would rather pay a fine than serve time if they were able to afford it.

The ordinance comes a year after a group of women sued the City of Austin claiming the city was unlawfully jailing residents who couldn’t afford to pay their fines.

An example of the practice is Valerie Gonzales, a single mother of five disabled children who was arrested after police found that she had $4,500 in fines from unpaid traffic tickets. She was given the option of paying $1,000 immediately or serving 45 days in jail. A legal advocacy group paid her fine, but without their intervention, she would have been forced to serve out the full 45-day sentence.

The resolution also tasks the city manager and municipal court clerk to create a system to track the number of defendants committed to jail, the reason, and the duration per judge.

“If there are just a few judges that are jailing people for not paying fines, that would inform our decision as we’re reappointing judges,” said an Austin City Council Member.

In July, a municipal audit report delivered to Austin City Council revealed that nearly 20,000 people were jailed in Austin in 2015 alone for not paying fines. During the same year, municipal courts only offered nine indecency waivers.

Many municipal courts in Texas’ major cities have drawn attention for their overuse of jail for defendants who fail to pay. This step by Austin City Council will hopefully prove successful and encourage other cities to make efforts to ensure they don’t continue to excessively jail these defendants for simply struggling to pay.

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About the Author

Charles operates the Houston office for Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.