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Bill to end jail time for those too poor to pay fines heads to Texas governor

The bill 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.

Detainees line up to leave the outdoor recreation area at the Travis County Juvenile Detention Center in Austin on June 24, 2013.

A bill that would eliminate what critics have called unofficial debtors prisons passed both chambers of the Texas Legislature Sunday, sending the legislation to Gov. Greg Abbott for a signature.

Senate Bill 1913 by state Sen. Judith Zaffirni, D-Laredo, would give judges more flexibility in setting lower fines for people who commit certain fine-only offenses, such as failing to pay a parking or speeding ticket. Judges would also be required to evaluate a person's ability to pay fines under the bill, and be given the discretion to allow offenders to pay fines in increments or through community service, among other things.

After different versions of the bill passed the House and Senate earlier this year, lawmakers from each chamber hashed out a compromise version, known as a conference committee report. 

After the House adopted the conference committee report on Sunday, the Senate followed suit with a 26-5 vote.

“I’m asking you to ensure someone’s life and liberty aren’t taken away from them, where they’re put in jail for not paying fines,” Zaffirini told state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, one of the most vocal senators against the bill.

Bettencourt said he believed the bill could possibly undermine efforts to hold people accountable for their actions.

“There’s something I remember called personal responsibility,” he said, adding the bill would result in a patchwork of limitations across the state. “We’re setting a different standard now.”

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.

The cities of San Antonio and Corpus Christi don’t jail people for their inability to pay low-level fines, Zaffirni said before the Senate vote, adding, “Even though imprisoning the poor for the inability to afford to pay fines is unconstitutional, it’s happening across this state.”

Other Democratic senators, including José Rodríguez from El Paso and Eddie Lucio Jr. from Brownsville, spoke in support of SB 1913, with Rodríguez directing a comment right at Bettencourt.

“This seems to me a very just and fair way of addressing fines in this state,” he said, “and it gives someone a break, Senator Bettencourt.”

SB 1913 also received support from state Sen. Don Huffiness, R-Dallas, who said Zaffirini’s bill would help curb over-criminalization in the state.

“We have over-criminalized society, Americans and Texans,” he said. “You can even get a fine from not mowing your yard or letting your dog out — let’s give some flexibility to judges.”

Disclosure: Texas Appleseed has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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