When the Texas courts revised ways for economically disadvantaged people to resolve minor offenses — such as traffic tickets — by reviewing the defendants’ ability to pay, they got an unexpected result: court collections jumped by nearly 7 percent.
NCSC board member and Texas Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht has been leading this effort, along with the Texas Judicial Council. “Jailing criminal defendants who cannot pay their fines and court costs keeps them from their jobs, hurts their families, makes them dependent on society, and costs the taxpayers money. Most importantly, it is illegal under the United States Constitution,” said Chief Justice Hecht. “When taxpayers have to say to criminal defendants, ‘This hurts us more than it hurts you,’ something is wrong.”
Along with the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) and several other state court systems, Texas has been examining ways to appropriately penalize people who don’t have the financial ability to pay court fines and fees for criminal offenses. Chief Justice Hecht is a member of the SJI-funded National Task Force on Court Fines, Fees and Bail Practices, an initiative of the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators. Identifying alternative sanctions to court fines/fees was one focus area of the Task Force.
For years, many people who were unable to pay court fines and fees ended up in jail, creating long-term consequences for the individual and costing taxpayers and the justice system more money. Many of these people, once in jail for non-payment, lost their jobs and often their driver’s licenses, which created a cycle of poverty. Critics have dubbed this as “debtors’ prisons.”
With support from Chief Justice Hecht and others, in 2017 the Texas passed legislation that, among other things, allows courts to ask defendants earlier in the court process about their ability to pay their fines/fees, and tailor the fines/fees to an amount appropriate for the defendants’ situation. The legislation requires judges to conduct an inquiry at sentencing, limit warrants for arrest for non-compliance, and offer expanded options for community service. For example, once it’s determined an individual is unable to afford a $500 traffic ticket, but are able to afford $200, payment is made and the case is resolved or community service is assigned. Before this legislation, if the individual was unable to pay the $500, he/she often failed to pay anything and was jailed.
“Courts are collecting something rather than nothing, and the negative impacts for defendants are much lower,” said David Slayton, Texas State Court Administrator. “While we have more progress to make, we are delighted to see the positive impacts from the proposals the Judicial Council made.”