For many low-income Texans, struggling to pay for misdemeanor, fine-only offenses like traffic tickets can become a crippling experience, one that can quickly spiral out of control and land them in jail with real criminals accused of committing far more serious crimes.
Being jailed can have a devastating ripple effect that goes far beyond the low-level infraction. People in jail can’t work, so they lose their jobs. Without paychecks, they can’t pay the rent, so they get kicked out of their homes.
Then there is the cost to the cities. The arrests tie up law enforcement officers who are risking their lives serving these arrest warrants, and they spend more taxpayer dollars to feed, clothe and monitor prisoners.
This is a poor use of resources, and it’s avoidable.
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So what the City of Fort Worth is doing this month warrants (pun intended) recognition and should be duplicated by other cities in Tarrant County. Make no mistake, laws need to be enforced and fines paid, but there is a better way.
The Fort Worth Municipal Court is having a “Warrant Forgiveness Month.” The court is allowing defendants with Class C warrants who may have been afraid to work out their problems to meet with a judge and either sign off on a payment plan or agree to community service in an effort to settle their accounts.
To be even more neighborly, the city is taking their show on the road with a mobile courthouse -- a converted police command center -- and parking it in non-threatening locales such as libraries and churches across Fort Worth.
Municipal Court Director Theresa Ewing says the response is “humbling.” In the first three days, more than 400 people met with a judge and more than 3,000 warrants cleared. While it’s a fraction of the city’s 300,000 outstanding warrants, it still is better than disrupting hundreds of lives because of tickets and court fines for something like disorderly conduct.
But not every city sees the common sense of this.Star-Telegram reporter Jeff Caplan wrote last week that the City of Arlington put LaKeisha Kelly in jail for five days because she owed more than $3,200 in unpaid traffic citations. While Kelly was incarcerated her hours at work were severely cut from part time to on call status that doesn’t guarantee hours. Her daughter was fired because she missed work to care for a 5-year-old diabetic son that her mother typically watched over. They missed a rent payment and may be kicked out of their apartment.
Fort Worth is looking at continuing its community outreach beyond February, possibly making it a quarterly or monthly event, eliminating what Caplan’s story called a “debtor prison.” Other cities, including Arlington, should take note. This is a better way.