Municipal Jails or Debtor’s Prison?

May 25, 2016 by

Although a Supreme Court decision in 1971 unanimously reaffirmed that jail is not a lawful punishment for failure to pay fines, the practice continues today in many municipal courts.

The decision was in favor of Preston A. Tate, who accumulated $425 in fines from traffic offenses in the City of Houston. Under Texas law, if the person couldn’t pay the fine they could be incarcerated for the amount of time it takes to satisfy their fines at the rate of $5 per day. In Tate’s case it would have been an 85-day jail sentence.

The court determined that, “It is denial of equal protection to limit punishment to payment of a fine for those who are able to pay it, but to convert the fine to imprisonment for those who are unable to pay it.”

But to this day, Texas law allows municipal judges to jail nonpaying defendants as long as they have been offered alternative methods of payment and “failed to make a good faith effort” to pay their fine. The policy’s consequence leads many municipal courts to rely on fines as revenue and can dissuade a judge from going out of their way to offer alternative sentences.

Last year a group of women filed a lawsuit against the City of Austin accusing Austin Municipal Courts of unlawfully jailing low-income residents who cannot afford to pay fines. The group said the law rarely—if ever—assesses a person’s ability to pay petty fines and the courts don’t offer reductions or reasonable community service alternatives. As a result, they argue the municipal jail is effectively operating as a debtors’ prison.

In 2014, Austin’s court system reported they had no reductions or waivers in fines for an inability to pay. By comparison, during that same time period, the San Antonio Municipal Court system cut over $300,000 from misdemeanor fines attributable to the defendants’ inability to pay.

Reportedly in July 2015, 67 Austin residents were ordered to serve a combined 653 days in jail for tickets.

Valerie Gonzales’ story is a perfect example. The 31-year old mother of five disabled children was the passenger during a car accident. The police arrived and arrested Valerie on warrants for $4,500 in unpaid traffic fines. She was sentenced to 45 days in jail unless she could immediately come up with at least $1,000. Luckily, after a few days, an attorney for a legal advocacy group paid her fine.

Although judges are required to hold indigency hearings, a Buzzfeed investigation found many judges in Texas refuse to do so.

But, there are some who are working towards a solution. Judge Ed Spillane is the presiding judge of the College Station Municipal Court and he makes alternative sentencing for indigent defendants a priority.

Instead of suspending licenses, which hinders a person’s ability to get and maintain employment, he often sentences them to community service at a nonprofit or government entity. He also utilizes payment plans for those in need. For one case, where the defendant had a fine for not using a child safety seat, he waived the fine after having her complete a free child safety seat class. For first-time offenders he will often sentence them to anger-management training or drunk-driving impact panels.

The largely unreported fact is that our elaborate system of petty fines and penalties hits low-income Texans the hardest. A court system that’s become too dependent on fines as a revenue stream is not one dutifully serving the public interest, and inevitably presents a conflict of interest between levying fines and applying more appropriate sentencing.

Research has shown that alternative sentencing can reduce recidivism. While fining and jailing has been the status quo for decades, it’s promising to see alternative methods employed that benefit both the offender and the community at large.


About the Author

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