Debtors Prison Law Having Positive Impact

November 12, 2018 by

According to the Texas Office of Court Administration, a new law passed by Democratic State Rep. Terry Canales has significantly reduced the number of arrest warrants issued for minor traffic offenses and other Class C misdemeanors.

“In Texas, tens of thousands of Texans were being jailed for failure to pay tickets, fines and court fees from Class C traffic tickets,” Canales told an Edinburg newspaper. “When we jail someone for a traffic ticket, you and me are paying $85 a day to lock them up. The state has not collected any money, we are actually paying money out.”

Canales said his bill, HB 351, has resulted in 300,000 fewer arrest warrants, generated more money per case for cities and the state, and has more people doing community service to satisfy their societal debt.

The law expanded the options for judges to dole out punishments for those who cannot pay fines and court costs in criminal cases. Canales said before the law was in place, the amount of low income Texans jailed for minor offenses was incredibly high.

“In Texas, at the rate we were going, we were going to eventually be throwing a million poor people in jail every year for failure to pay tickets, fines and fees arising from court cases,” warned Canales, who is an attorney. “We have too many Texans statewide who are struggling to pay rent and groceries, then they were winding up getting ticketed and getting jailed for the most minor offenses, such as traffic violations.”

Though the law has had positive impact, the criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast reminds us the job of reforming debtors prisons in Texas is only half done.

“The state has taken some of the most comically absurd elements out of its Class-C fine system, but it’s still grinding up hundreds of thousands of Texans every year who are too poor to pay.”

Grits writes that according to Court data, warrants issued for Class C misdemeanors declined by 37.5 percent since the 11 months ending July 2015. However, in the same period ending in July 2018, there were still over a million warrants issued for these offenses.

He also mentions that at both the Democratic and Republican conventions this year platform language was passed that supports ending arrests for Class C misdemeanor fines.

The 2019 legislative session is quickly approaching and today is the first day of legislative pre-filing of bills. We’ll quickly see how serious lawmakers are about finally and fully reforming this practice.

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About the Author

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