The Texas state legislature is taking steps to curtail the practice of jailing those who can’t pay court-ordered bills.
Once the law goes into effect on September 1, judges in Texas will be required to offer low-income defendants alternatives to fines and fees, such as community service. Additionally, judges will be allowed to fully or partially waive debts if community service alternatives would impose undue hardships on defendants.
Debtors’ prisons have been illegal in the United States since 1833, but the current system retains their essential function in some ways. In fact, last year in Texas, 95 percent of warrants for arrest stemmed from outstanding court fines. In 2016, 640,000 people were jailed due to debts coming from minor crimes, such as public intoxication, missing a stop sign or letting a dog run loose in an area with leash laws.
Minor fines due to crimes such as these can rapidly spin out of control if unpaid, especially when a person has their driver’s license lapse due to warrants. Late charges continue to pile up, leading to a spiral of debt that can be nearly impossible for low-income offenders to escape.
The change is excellent news for thousands of Texans who might otherwise face these crippling debts. Advocates described it as an incredible victory in a state that tends to lean on the side of “lock ‘em up!”
The Goolsby Law Firm provides criminal defense services to clients throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.