This commentary was originally featured in the Washington Examiner on April 9, 2018.
A Texas mom, Valerie Gonzales, was thrown in jail because she couldn’t afford the $1,000 demanded in order to be released.
What was her offense you might ask? Gonzales had racked up fines and fees for unpaid traffic tickets.
There was nothing related to drinking and driving or neglecting to ensure her kids buckled their seatbelts. Instead, the most frequently cited offense was driving without a valid license, a Class C misdemeanor that is most commonly seen among low-income Texans. The mother of five worked multiple jobs but still found herself struggling to make ends meet, sometimes to the point of homelessness. Unfortunately, the judge never asked about her financial situation. He simply demanded $1,000 and sentenced her to 45 days in jail when she was unable to cough up the cash.
This overreliance on fines and fees can lead to what’s commonly referred to as debtors’ prisons, effectively similar to the institutions from 19th-century England.
In 2014, there were more than 24,000 people booked into county jails in seven of Texas’ largest counties for fine-only offenses such as unpaid traffic tickets. However, thanks to leadership from Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, Texas passed landmark legislation in 2017 aimed at ending debtors’ prisons. In an interview with Right on Crime’s Marc Levin, Hecht said he felt compelled to reform the fines and fees system to better protect individual liberty and to reduce taxpayer costs.
The evidence that inspired his position originated from an investigation over 800 miles away — in Ferguson, Mo. Before reforms were enacted in 2015, Ferguson courts heavily relied on revenue from fines and fees, to the point that a woman was jailed over her inability to pay a citation for an overgrown lawn.
As seen in Gonzales’ case, Ferguson is not unique, but Texas is making headway towards offering alternatives to fines and fees. Thanks to the passage of Senate Bill 1913 and House Bill 351 in the 2017 legislative session, the number of people receiving community service as an alternative sentence for certain misdemeanors has increased. Also, more money is being collected with fewer people being jailed. “One of the criticisms of these changes was that if you cut these people some slack it will undercut the revenue,” says Justice Hecht. However, “The amount of money collected per case is up 13 percent.”
While Texas legislators followed Justice Hecht’s call to address fines and fees in 2017, bail reform remains a work in progress. Hecht says judges should evaluate each individual’s risk to prevent taxpayers from footing the bill to lock up defendants who do not endanger public safety. Hecht points to the case of one woman who was jailed for months before her trial on charges of stealing clothes for her grandchildren.
Should she have been punished? Yes. Should taxpayers have paid over $3,300 to house her in jail for stealing $105 worth of clothing? No.
Hecht recommends judges consider using an electronic risk assessment. The model developed by the Houston-based Arnold Foundation is being piloted by the Office of Court Administration this year. It has proven to be a much better predictor of flight risk or probability of re-arrest than a defendant’s wealth or lack thereof.
Judicial discretion is a crucial aspect of our criminal justice system. Risk assessments can be a valuable tool to supplement — not replace — that discretion. While no system is perfect, Justice Hecht says, “knowing more is better than knowing less.” This is not only the right thing to do for public safety, but also to ensure that when someone’s liberty is taken away, it’s for an offense more egregious than the inability to pay traffic tickets.