Other Voices

Inability to pay fines shouldn’t mean the indigent go to jail

The average cost of jailing a person in Texas can run as high as $100 a day.
The average cost of jailing a person in Texas can run as high as $100 a day. Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Texas judicial system has come under national scrutiny again, and the headlines aren’t good for our state’s image.

A Buzzfeed report’s headline blared last month, “Their Crime: Being Poor. Their Sentence: Jail.”

As a Texas police officer, I’ve seen these sorts of stories play out firsthand. The real tragedy is that things don’t have to go that way if judges, prosecutors and, yes, police become more attuned to the financial circumstances of the people who get caught up in the legal system.

Inability to pay should never lead to jail time — community service alternatives are available throughout the state.

I am not referring to those who are simply unwilling to pay. When people have the means to pay, either all at once or over time, jail is and should be a real possibility if they fail to do so.

The law says that Class C misdemeanors are crimes for which the punishment is financial. If you possibly can pay, you must.

Section 45.046 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure calls for a determination of indigence.

Yet Buzzfeed’s investigative journalists reviewed 20 Texas courts and found that nine had no documentation of holding poverty hearings for defendants.

This raises the specter of the return of debtor’s prison. Locking up scofflaws who have no ability to pay defies common sense, is against Texas and U.S. law, and needlessly wastes taxpayer money.

Texas is not alone. Last month, in Michigan, David Stojcevski died in jail after serving 17 days of a 30-day sentence for failure to pay a $772 traffic fine.

That event focused attention on what has become an increasingly alarming issue: unfair punishment for traffic fines.

Texas drivers who receive a citation must contact the court and make a plea: “guilty,” “not guilty,” or “No contest.” There’s no “Unable to Pay” option.

But for genuinely indigent Texans, payment is impossible. Unless the court conducts and completes an indigence hearing, a judge should never sentence people to jail time for a Class C misdemeanor.

Defendants must have an opportunity to demonstrate their inability to pay. The potential harm and costs are too great otherwise.

The average cost of jailing a person in Texas can run as high as $100 a day. As soon as someone who cannot pay a fine is locked up, the public costs start to accumulate, quickly exceeding the face value of a citation and warrant.

Add to that the time law enforcement must spend arresting someone, medical care, transportation, etc., and the situation gets even more expensive.

When I conduct a traffic stop, before I write a citation, I make it a point to ask the driver, “Is there any reason for your excessive speed today?”

You never know — there are some legitimate reasons people speed. To do my job well, I need to know not just the raw fact of speed but also the circumstances.

Judges should seek the same context. Judges should ask, “Do you have the financial resources to pay?” and, on hearing the answer, “No,” inquire further.

It is the duty of everyone in the legal system, from judges down to beat cops, to explain options to people and tell them how to apply to the court when they can’t pay a fine, or when they feel they are innocent but are afraid of jail, so they stay away.

When the indigent are sentenced to jail as opposed to alternatives, everyone loses.

Nick Selby is a police detective who lives in Arlington.