The legislature passed bills that would require judges to ask about defendants’ ability to pay fines. About 640,000 people spent at least one night in jail in the state last year because they could not afford to pay tickets and fines.
Texas locks up more people who can’t afford to pay tickets and fines than any other state. That could change if Gov. Greg Abbott signs off on bipartisan bills that would require judges to offer alternatives such as community service, payment plans or waivers, the Associated Press reports. Ninety-five percent of warrants issued in Texas last year were for fine-related offenses. Some 640,000 people spent at least one night in jail, says the Texas Judicial Council, which sets policy for the courts. At an average of $60 per night per inmate, it cost counties significant money to jail offenders rather than find cheaper alternatives. “This is easily the most significant reform to Texas’s municipal courts in a decade,” said Trisha Trigilio of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “Under the bills, people who can’t afford to make a payment would be guaranteed the opportunity to be heard before they’re put in handcuffs.”
The U.S. Supreme Court in the 1970s outlawed so-called debtor’s prisons, finding it unconstitutional to jail people for not being able to pay fines. Several states, including Colorado, Washington, Georgia, and New Hampshire, recently passed legislation meant to reinforce that ban. More than a dozen states still effectively detain people for not paying what they owe. Texas judges already can opt for an alternative to jail for people who can’t pay tickets and fines, but they rarely do so, allowing community service in just 8 percent of cases last year and waiving the fines in half that amount. Under the current legislation, judges would be required to ask in court about a person’s ability to pay a ticket and to present alternatives to those who can’t. Marc Levin of Right on Crime and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, said the changes would save taxpayers the expense of jailing so many people.