In the past, we have noted a major problem in the Texas criminal justice system that leaves impoverished people with unpaid fines languishing in prison cells.
Legislation approved this session would make it easier for people with traffic tickets to find alternatives to payment and keep them out of jail.
The bill by Sen. Judith Zaffirini allows courts to ask defendants if they are too poor to pay traffic and other low-level fines, or court costs.
The courts would be allowed to make a determination that would let them waive fines and costs and offer alternatives like community service.
State legislators said violators were not getting away free. Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston said there was no need to fill up jails with people who should not be there.
Offenders who commit fine-only offenses, only face jail time when they fail to pay fines.
A report recently released by Texas Appleseed and the Texas Fair Defense Project revealed large numbers of these defendants can’t afford to pay fines or are hit by additional fines or other harsh restrictions like being prevented from renewing their driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations. Opponents have dubbed it debtors’ prison.
Often these laws keep Texans in a poverty trap. More than 200,000 people in the state are unable to renew their licenses because of unpaid fines, the report stated. Double that number have holds on their vehicle registrations because of unpaid fines. In 2015, almost 3 million warrants were issued in cases that started off as a simple fine.
The system keeps Texans in poverty. If you are unable to renew your driver’s license, your ability to hold onto a job is impaired.
Harris County Jail, the largest in Texas, has been accused of jailing hundreds of people because they are too poor to get out, reported Think Progress.
Maranda Lynn O’Donnell who was arrested for allegedly driving with an invalid license and jailed for two days is one of the former inmates who is suing the jail.
In a lawsuit she filed with the nonprofit Equal Justice Under Law against Harris County, two other former inmates said they have been locked up due to their poverty.
Texas is tough on even minor offenders. If you are facing jail time, it’s important to talk to a Tarrant County criminal defense attorney who can help you beat jail. Contact us today for a free consultation about your case.