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House votes to end jail time for being too poor to pay fines

Senate Bill 1913, by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, would allow courts to ask defendants if they are too poor to pay for traffic tickets, fines for other low-level and fine-only offenses or court costs.

Inmates in the Harris County Jail in 2011.

Legislation that would make it easier for poor people to satisfy traffic tickets with alternatives to payment cleared the Texas House on Tuesday on a vote of 75-70. The bill needs to be approved by the Senate again before moving to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk.

Senate Bill 1913, by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, would allow courts to ask defendants if they are too poor to pay for traffic tickets; fines for other low-level and fine-only offenses; or court costs. After making that determination, courts would be allowed to reduce or waive fines and costs and offer community service as an alternative.

"They're not getting off scot-free. We're getting something for something," the bill's House sponsor, Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, told members Monday. "We are filling our jails up with people who should not be there."

For fine-only offenses, jail time only comes into the picture when someone doesn't pay their fine — a risk borne by thousands of Texans, according to a recently released report by Texas Appleseed and the Texas Fair Defense Project. Those who can't afford to pay often find themselves hit with additional fines or other restrictions, such as being blocked from renewing their driver's licenses and vehicle registrations. Critics call it debtors' prison.

More than 200,000 Texans can't renew their licenses, and approximately 400,000 have holds on vehicle registrations due to unpaid fines, according to the report. In 2015, almost 3 million warrants were issued in cases where the punishment was originally just a fine.

Courts generally don't offer alternatives to jailing or ask about a defendant's ability to pay, the study found. In 2015, judges rarely used community service to resolve "fine-only" cases – just 1.3 percent of the time. In fewer than 1 percent of cases, they waived fines or reduced payments owed because the defendant couldn't afford to pay, according to the study.

Legislation tackling this issue has a high-profile supporter in Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht.

Jailing a person who can't pay fines and court costs "keeps them from jobs, hurts their families, makes them dependent on society and costs the taxpayers money," he said during his State of the Judiciary speech in February.

Read more:

  • A bill aimed granting more defendants release from jail without paying bail would require judges to use a risk assessment system before making bail decisions — and to make those decisions within 48 hours of an arrest.
  • Advocates hope to end policy in Texas of jailing poor for unpaid fines.
  • In a handful of Texas communities, law enforcement officers have begun using a California company's technology to not only identify and pull over drivers with outstanding court fines but also process their credit card payments.

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Courts Criminal justice State government 85th Legislative Session Judith Zaffirini Nathan L. Hecht Senfronia Thompson Texas Legislature Texas Supreme Court