Texas Bill to End Jail Time for People Unable to Pay Fines

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PC: Laughlin Air Force Base 

Kevin Liu
Staff Writer

Texas Legislature is now making it easier for people who cannot pay their traffic tickets by providing alternative payments. The state 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, introduced by Dem. state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, allows courts to ask defendants if they are too poor to pay for their traffic tickets, fines for other low-level and fine-only offenses or court costs. Judges would be required to evaluate a person’s ability to pay fines under the bill. After determining the status of the defendant, the courts can waive or reduce fines and costs and offer community service.

Those who cannot afford to pay their fines often find themselves with additional fines for other restrictions. These restrictions may include being blocked from renewing their driver’s licenses and vehicle registration, which traps them in what is called debtor’s prison.

The bill also restricts the usage of capias pro fines, which are warrants issued when a person misses a deadline to make payments or perform community service. Many people have complained that these warrants are difficult to clear since the courts demand arbitrary, on-the-spot payments in order to clear the warrant.

“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 Rep. Sen. Paul Bettencourt.

Bettencourt has stated that he believes the bill could undermine efforts to hold people accountable for their actions by giving them a way out.

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

As reported by Jonathan Silver of the Texas Tribune, more than 200,000 Texans cannot renew their licenses and approximately 400,000 have holds on their vehicle registration stemming from unpaid fines. In 2015, almost three million warrants were issued in cases where the punishment was originally just a fine.

One study has shown that courts do not usually offer alternatives to jailing or ask if the defendant is able to pay. As reported by Silver, judges rarely used community service to resolve “fine-only” cases, as this was a solutioned used only 1.3 percent of the time in 2015. In fewer than one percent of cases, courts waived fines or reduced payments owed because the defendant couldn’t afford to pay.

The bill still requires approval by the state Senate before being passed and signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas. If this is enacted, legislation will be able to prevent thousands of Texans from being imprisoned over simple fines while saving taxpayers millions of dollars.

The bill 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, hurt their families, makes them dependent on society and costs the taxpayers money,” Hecht said during his State of Judiciary Speech in February.

Senate Bill 1913 will take effect on Sept. 1 if approved.

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