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Texas Reforms Its System of Debtors’ Prisons

In a rare liberal move, the Texas Legislature passed a bill that requires courts to ask whether people can afford to pay traffic tickets and other minor fines, and offer alternatives to jail time if they cannot.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — In a rare liberal move, the Texas Legislature passed a bill that requires courts to ask whether people can afford to pay traffic tickets and other minor fines, and offer alternatives to jail time if they cannot.

Senate Bill 1913, by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, was signed into law on Thursday by Gov. Greg Abbott.

It amends the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure to say: “A court shall inquire whether the defendant has sufficient resources or income to immediately pay all or part of the fine and costs.”

If the court determines that the defendant does not have sufficient resources, it will decide whether the debt should be: (1) paid at some later date or in a specified portion at designated intervals; (2) discharged by performing community service; (3) waived in full or in part; or (4) satisfied through a combination of methods.

The bill also restricts the usage of capias pro fines, which are warrants given when a person misses a deadline to make payments or perform community service. Many people complain that capias warrants are difficult to clear and that some courts demand arbitrary, on-the-spot payments to clear the warrant.

SB 1913 says a court may not issue a capias pro fine for a defendant’s failure to satisfy the judgment unless the person fails to appear at the hearing for the judgment or the evidence supports issuance of the fine. But the court will recall a capias fine if the person resolves the amount owed before the warrant is executed.

A November 2016 report on Texas debtor’s prisons by the American Civil Liberties Union describes how people who cannot afford to pay traffic tickets receive more tickets and get caught in the “bureaucratic maze” of Texas law.

For instance, Texas authorizes local governments to contract with the Department of Public Safety and Department of Motor Vehicles to report late traffic ticket payments. This results in fees of up to $30 per outstanding charge. People with overdue payments cannot renew their driver’s licenses or auto registrations.

An expired driver’s license might then lead to a person losing his or her car insurance. He or she may then be stopped by police and get tickets for the expired license, expired registration, and lapse in car insurance: so-called “poverty offenses.” As a result, a poor person can accumulate $1,000 or more in traffic tickets in a short time, the ACLU report says.

SB 1913 addresses the issue of a person being unable to register a vehicle by setting a 2-year limit on how long the past due status of a fine can be used to refuse registration.

“Information that is provided to make a determination under Subsection (a)(1) and that concerns the past due status of a fine or fee imposed for a criminal offense and owed to the county expires on the second anniversary of the date the information was provided and may not be used to refuse registration after that date,” the bill states.

In his State of the Judiciary Address in February, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht addressed the need to reform Texas’ system of debtor’s prisons.

“Last year, Texas’ 2,100 justices of the peace and municipal judges handled 7 million traffic, parking, and other minor offenses. … In 640,000 cases — 16 percent — defendants went to jail for minor offenses,” Justice Hecht said.

He continued: “Judges must determine whether a defendant is actually unable, not just unwilling, to pay a fine. A defendant whose liberty is at stake must be given a hearing and may be entitled to legal counsel. For the indigent, the fine must be waived and some alternative punishment arranged, such as community service or training.”

Mary Jane Grubb, clerk of the Austin Municipal Court, told Courthouse News in an email that SB 1913 will not significantly affect her court since it already inquires into the ability of a defendant to pay fines, and offers alternatives to incarceration.

Austin’s alternative payment options must be approved by a judge, and proof of income and expenses is required. The options include asking for a lower payment plan amount, requesting community service and receiving credit for jail time served.

SB 1913 will take effect on Sept. 1.

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