Debtors’ Prisons

Check out TFDP and Texas Appleseed’s recently released this report entitled Pay or Stay: The High Cost of Jailing Texans for Fines and Fees.

For low-income Texans, a ticket for a minor offense like speeding, jaywalking, or having a broken headlight can lead to devastating consequences. If a person is unable to pay the ticket right away the costs can snowball quickly, resulting in more tickets, fines, and fees. Failure to appear in court or to pay can lead to arrest warrants and jail time, causing people to lose jobs, housing, and even child custody; almost 80% of women in jail have children, and many are single mothers. In addition, jailing people for misdemeanor tickets drains local court and law enforcement resources and costs taxpayers millions of dollars. It is also unfair and unconstitutional.

Jailing poor people for tickets is counterproductive.

  • Current practices result in people having their drivers’ licenses suspended and prohibit them from registering their cars, which makes it illegal for them to drive to work.
  • Issuing an arrest warrant can make it nearly impossible for people to find new employment, and sending them to jail may cause them to lose jobs, housing, and even child custody.
  • This system keeps too many people rotating in and out of jail, stuck in an inescapable cycle of debt.
  • The trauma of jail can also exacerbate people’s mental and physical health issues and make it harder for them to get back on track when released.

Jail time for tickets costs taxpayers money and decreases public safety.

  • A night in jail in Texas costs an average of $59.
  • Many people jailed for tickets are simply not able to pay their debt; issuing warrants and incarcerating them is a waste of taxpayer money, as well as court and law enforcement resources.
  • Evidence shows that detaining low-risk people actually increases the likelihood that they will be arrested again in the future.

It is also unfair—and unconstitutional.

  • The United States Supreme Court ruled that incarcerating people for unpaid fines or fees without an ability to pay hearing violates the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.
  • Before jailing people for debt, courts are required to ask them if they have the ability to pay, and if they don’t, to offer alternatives. This step is routinely skipped in courts across Texas.
  • The current system punishes people differently according to income: In contrast to more affluent people who can pay their tickets right away, poor people get much harsher punishments that can last a lifetime.

Our Recommendations:

There are better ways to hold people accountable that are fairer, are more cost-effective, increase public safety, and protect people’s constitutional rights. We are advocating for the Texas Legislature to make the following changes: 

  1. End the use of jail time for tickets.
  2. Require judges to determine a person’s ability to pay at sentencing, and to immediately consider alternatives if they can’t afford the typical fines and fees.
  3. Expand the use of payment plans and community services.
  4. Reduce reliance on arrest warrants.
  5. Eliminate unfair fees.
  6. Reduce the number of unlicensed drivers.
  7. Limit private collection agencies.

What is the Texas Fair Defense Project doing to change the system?

TFDP is addressing the issue through litigation, public education, education of municipal policymakers and judges, and legislative advocacy.

Texas Legislature – TFDP is working to educate legislative stakeholders on this important issue in advance of the legislative session, and we will work in coalition with community and legislative allies to pass our reform agenda.

Impact Litigation – TFDP will undertake a broad litigation docket in 2017 to change current jailing practices. We are investigating cities with especially high jailing rates and are gathering facts from people jailed in those cities to identify plaintiffs. We are also negotiating with local policymakers to gain release for individual clients in jail for tickets.

Outreach and Education— TFDP is developing education campaigns, such as our Know Your Rights materials and presentations for individuals facing Class C tickets, as well as materials and reports for policymakers, judges, and the community at large. We are also developing a toolkit for pro bono attorneys to use when negotiating Class C tickets.