Texas Has A Debtors’ Prison Problem
From Austin to Amarillo to Houston and El Paso, poor people are sitting in jails because they can’t afford to pay fines.
Last week, an Amarillo attorney released documents that he said showed the city jailed disabled people simply because they were unable to pay municipal fines. According to the Amarillo Globe-News, the victims of this apparent debtors’ prison system include “a disabled veteran on social security who owed $539; a woman living on $490 a month from social security disability who owed $520; and a woman living on $723 a month in disability benefits who paid $16 of a $225 fine.”
As we wrote last week, debtors’ prisons are supposed to be illegal, and it’s been that way for a long time. According to the Marshall Project: “Jailing the indigent for their failure to meet contractual obligations was considered primitive by ancient Greek and Roman politicians, and remains illegal and unheard of in most developed countries. Under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, the practice is listed as a civil-rights violation.” America officially outlawed debtors’ prisons in 1833, and in 1983 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that judges could not jail someone simply because they couldn’t afford their fine unless they were found to have “willfully refused” to pay. The ambiguity of the phrase “willfully refused,” however, has left poor people in Texas jails from Austin to El Paso.
In May, an Austin American-Statesman investigation revealed that Texas’s capital city frequently jails people who can’t afford to pay traffic tickets. One was a single mother of seven. Unable to get herself out of debt, she was jailed, while pregnant, for owing traffic fines. She lost her job while in jail, was released, and was jailed a second time because she was unemployed and still couldn’t pay. Another was a 31-year-old mother of five who didn’t have a driver’s license, which she couldn’t afford until she paid off her traffic fines, thus ensnaring her in an endless loop.
Writes the Statesman: “She needed to get her five children to school. She had to get herself and her husband to work. Her family sometimes lived in her car, out of motels or at a homeless shelter. There were bills, medical expenses and everyday necessities they were struggling to afford.” The woman in this case received sixteen tickets—two for speeding and two for other minor traffic infractions, and twelve for driving without a valid license, driving without insurance and failing to register her car—amassing $4,500 total in traffic ticket debt.
When she appeared before court, a Travis County judge told her she must come up with $1,000 by the end of the day, or else she’d face a jail term of 45 days. The woman told the Statesman that the judge made no inquiries regarding her income or any dependents, didn’t give her the option to settle the debt through community service, and never offered to reduce the debt given her obvious inability to pony up for the fines. It’s hard to see how that constitutes any definition of “willfully refusing” to pay.
It’s not much better in the largest city in Texas. In May, a committee organized by Mayor Sylvester Turner released a damning report that found that the city uses its municipal court “as a profit center.” Of the court’s 169,000 convictions in 2014, only 2,800 were given the option to pay their fines through community service, and only six cases saw their fines waived. As the report notes, nearly 25 percent of Houston’s population is below the poverty line, and they estimated that “at least 30,000 people” should have been given the option of community service. “Attempting to finance the city budget on the backs of the poor criminalizes poverty and destabilizes lives, ultimately doing more harm than good,” the report found.
Later in May, the Houston Press highlighted the impact of the city’s broken system through the story of a woman who is the primary caretaker of her multiple grandchildren, can’t find consistent work because she is disabled following a series of surgeries, survives off of a base income of $390 a month in Social Security payments, yet has still served multiple jail terms due to unpaid traffic tickets.
West Texas appears to be rife with debtors’ prisons too. El Paso, a city of 680,000, issued 87,000 arrest warrants in 2014 for people who either missed their court appearances for traffic fines or other low-level cases, fell behind on payment plans, or didn’t finish community service, according to an October investigation by BuzzFeed News. El Paso made nearly $11 million each year from 2011 to 2014 solely off of fines for traffic violations and similarly minor infractions, accounting for four percent of the city’s general fund revenue.
During one of these municipal court hearings last fall, an El Paso judge told the crowd of inmates that they were there because “you don’t have money,” according to BuzzFeed. Another judge told BuzzFeed that it would be “unfair to a rich person” to let poor people go because they couldn’t afford to pay fines. The same investigation also found that the city of Lubbock had jailed at least eight defendants who were clearly homeless for fine-only offenses like public intoxication or making too much noise. Under Texas law, it’s up to the judge to determine whether a defendant is indigent, and thus eligible for community service in lieu of jail time.
These modern-day debtors’ prisons are seemingly at odds with the very spirit of Texas. Writes BuzzFeed:
In its earliest days, Texas was known as a haven for Americans fleeing their debts. People who left town seeking a fresh start sometimes chalked “GTT” on the doors of their newly abandoned homes, short for “Gone to Texas,” said Randolph B. Campbell, a history professor at the University of North Texas. When Texas was admitted to the union in 1845, its elders etched into the new state’s constitution: “No person shall ever be imprisoned for debt.”
Reform is coming slowly, and not without resistance. In March, the Texas Judicial Council proposed a plan that would extend payment plans for people who owed money for fines and put stricter guidelines in place that would keep judges from jailing defendants who are too poor to pay.
Not all of Texas’s judicial officials were on board, according to public comments submitted in response to the proposal, which were obtained by BuzzFeed. Among the internet-comment-section-level responses:
“Don’t think by giving them this help that they are going to go out and get Insurance—No not going to happen. What is going to happen is our court loses and once again the defendant wins no lesson is learned, and where is the Justice. Remember the day in Ferguson when the Payless shoe store got looted? Well guess what no a single pair of work boots were taken. Go figure!” —Lisa Myrtle, the chief clerk at a Bowie County court.
” I can tell you as a collector for the last 10 years that I have seen multiple defendants say they cannot afford to make payments but literally have gone to lunch and seen them getting a full set of nails ($45) at the local nail salon; or they have been incarcerated for public intoxication over and over, so they have money for their beer not money to pay their fines and fees? We are not holding these people to the fire and threatening them, but yes we do make them feel responsible and take accountability for what they have done.” —Stephanie McCormick, court collections officer in Burnet County.
“The idea that everyone is considered indigent is absurd and guts the already weaken position of the courts. I wait for the defendant to claim, ‘I am already behind on child support and paying this fine will take food out of my third wife’s baby.’ How about letting them pay fines with their Texas Star card along with food stamps.” —Mitch Shamburger, a judge in Smith County.
It’s not all bleak. Last week, the Austin City Council succeeded in passing a resolution that would expand protections for indigent and poor defendants. According to the Austin American-Statesman, the main opposition to the resolution—which passed 10-0—came from SafeHorns, an advocacy group for University of Texas parents who feared the law would make the city’s West Campus neighborhood unsafe. “It just creates a free-for-all where there are no consequences,” the president of SafeHorns told the Statesman. “It takes the teeth out of all these ordinances… the behavior just continues to get worse and worse.”
There’s no evidence of that happening, however. In San Antonio, Texas’s shining city on the hill when it comes to preventing debtors’ prisons, courts have been focusing on not jailing people for traffic fines for nearly a decade. According to the Statesman‘s May investigation, judges in San Antonio just don’t jail people for traffic citations anymore, instead offering community service alternatives, giving poor defendants “generous jail credit” for time served during the booking process if they were arrested, and waiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in misdemeanor fines levied against poor defendants. “Contrary to fears, there were no spikes in traffic crimes, and the city did not lose revenue,” San Antonio Judge John Bull told the Statesman. It did, however, help to reduce Bexar County’s overcrowded jail population. It’s unclear when the rest of the state will catch up.