New Texas Law Would Stop Jailing People For Being Poor

It's a major step in making the justice system more just.

A new bill passed the Texas House of Representatives on Tuesday that would allow people without limited financial resources to pay off fines for low-level offenses with community service — instead of incarcerating them.

Senate Bill 1913, which passed by a 75-70 vote, needs to get through the Senate in order to land on Gov. Greg Abbot's desk, who would then have to sign it. Still, it could be an important step in reforming a criminal justice system that often times punishes people simply for being poor.

"They're not getting off scot-free. We're getting something for something," Rep. Senfronia Thompson, who sponsored the bill, told the press on Monday. "We are filling our jails up with people who should not be there."

In the event a low-income person was stopped for a traffic violation or other fine-only offenses, the bill would allow courts to determine if they are too poor to pay for the tickets. If that is the case, the courts would reduce or waive fines and instead require the offender to do community service. 

Texas Appleseed and the Texas Fair Defense Project recently released a report that showed thousands of Texans end up in jail when they are unable to pay their fines for low-level offenses. Even worse, some are hit with additional fines or lose their licenses which further prohibits them from working, feeding their families and contributing to their communities. Critics argue that this cycle effectively creates a modern-day debtors' prison.



The Texas State Capitol in Austin. RoschetzkyProductions.
The Texas State Capitol in Austin. RoschetzkyProductions.

David Long, the executive director of The Liberty Fund — a charitable bail fund designed to reduce the number of New Yorkers subjected to pre-trial detention at Rike's Island — says laws like this are a huge plus. Long, who has worked as a police officer, a prosecutor, and a criminal justice professor, said the benefits go well beyond just helping low-income offenders.

"It clears up dockets of cases that are just churning through the system and just slowing down justice for cases that really require a lot more time and effort," Long told A Plus. "The more you can get these cases out of the court system the more efficiently they run and the more money they save from not having to prosecute these low-level cases."

After reading about this bill, Long said one of the things that alarmed him the most was that only 1.3 percent of these "fine-only" cases were prosecuted using community service. 

"That's ridiculous," Long said. "Community service is a benefit to your society and most people who do community service end up feeling that there has actually been some sort of consequence to their actions and that they helped society in a positive way." 

The same report that showed thousands of Texans end up in jail because of outstanding fines also showed just how vast the problem is: almost 3 million warrants were issued in 2015 for people whose crimes originally started as an unpaid fines. On top of that, 200,000 Texans can't renew their driver's licenses because of outstanding fines.

"Outstanding warrants... stop people from getting jobs and wreak havoc on someone's life," Long said. "They don't even remember what it's for... when you're on the fringe and you can't pay a fine and you can't really fight these cases because you're barely making it from day to day or week to week, it's easier just to not show up at court and ignore these things."

Even worse, Long warned, executing a warrant for a petty offense can still be precarious. Sometimes, officers are sent into unnecessary danger when asked to serve a warrant in a building where other criminals live. These criminals may think they are being targeted by police and retaliate.

For people like Long, the hope is that legislation like this will be adopted across the country. Many states are working with courts to provide more resources for punishments — like well-organized programs for community service — so they aren't forced into choosing between jail or no jail. Long has also worked on bail reform with The Liberty Fund in an effort to stop people who can't afford to pay bail for low-level offenses from getting swept up into the prison system.

"As you look and spend more time in the system you find that for more and more cases jail is not the right result," Long said. "If you have people spending time in jail, then they run the risk of losing their job or losing their apartment or disconnecting with their family. Anything you can do to keep people who are not a threat to the community in the community should be pursued. Legislation like this is exactly what we need."

Cover photo: Shutterstock / gerasimov_foto_174.

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