AUSTIN, Texas — Texas locks up more people who can’t afford to pay tickets and fines than any other state, but that could change if Republican Governor Greg Abbott signs off on bipartisan bills that would require judges to offer alternatives such as community service, payment plans, or waivers.
Ninety-five percent of warrants issued in Texas last year were for fine-related offenses, and more than 640,000 people spent at least one night in jail, according to the Texas Judicial Council, which sets policy for the state’s judicial branch.
At an average of $60 per night per inmate, it cost counties significant money to jail offenders rather than find cheaper — or even profitable — 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 US 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 New Hampshire, Colorado, Georgia, and Washington, recently have passed legislation meant to reinforce that ban, but more than a dozen states, including Texas, still effectively detain people for not paying what they owe.
Texas judges can already opt for an alternative to jail for people who can’t pay their 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, according to the judicial council.
Under the legislation — the state Senate and state House passed similar measures — judges would be required to ask in court about a person’s ability to pay and to present alternatives to those who can’t.
State Senator Judith Zaffirini, a Democrat from Laredo who authored her chamber’s version of the bill, said it was “of extreme importance for low-income people” that the changes become law.
“If a person can’t pay, it spirals from a low-level to high-level problem,” said Zaffirini, noting that people often lose their jobs during such jail stints.
The judicial council’s executive director, David Slayton, also supports the proposed changes, which he said would encourage people to pay their tickets in installments or perform community service.
Most people who don’t pay their tickets also don’t appear for their court dates, but the legislation would require judges to send notices that offer alternatives to paying in full and that serve as warnings before an arrest warrant is issued.
Republican state Senator Paul Bettencourt of Houston, who voted against the measure, said it did not adequately consider “personal responsibility” and that it provided too much leeway for judges to completely waive fines.