Category: Criminal

Court Debts Cripple Texans

Texas leads the nation in unpaid court fees and fines. The money wasted on debt collection would be far better spent serving those who are unduly punished by these excessive court fees and fines. The system disproportionately targets low-income and minority residents and unjustly widens the wealth gap in our State. 

Texas Court Debts by the Numbers, 2012 to 2018:

  • $8.7 billion dealt out in court fees/fines
  • $3.5 billion or 40% uncollected 
  • $1 billion was “paid” for using the jail-credit system
    • 10 million days of incarceration  = $1 billion in jail credits
    •  $825 million of the $1 billion were cases in which the sole reason for incarceration was the inability to pay rather than any threat to public safety
  • $81.08 = the average cost of daily incarceration in Texas
  • 35 cents out of every $1.00 of debt collected was spent on debt collection 

The jail-credit system represents one of the biggest indicators of inequity in the court fee/fine collection process. When defendants are unable to pay, judges may waive the amount, require community service, or more often than not exchange jail time for fees and fines. Defendants earn minimum wage for hours of jail time they serve that goes directly into paying off their fees and fines. This is the only option for many in Texas. At the end of the day, we are unfairly penalizing residents for not having money to spare and spending far more on incarceration costs than we are “collecting.” 

To further demonstrate the local impact of debt collection, Travis County alone has more than $18 million in outstanding court fees/fines. Of the money it collects, over one third goes directly back into paying for the cost of collecting fees/fines. In one year, $4.8 million was spent on court proceedings and staff related to the collection process and $4.6 million was spent on incarcerating individuals in the jail-credit system. 

Over the past two sessions, we’ve passed legislation (SB 1913 and SB 1637) requiring courts to hold ability-to-pay hearings in cases wherein defendants are unable to afford fees or fines. However, in a recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice, researchers found that the majority of judges did not hold ability-to-pay hearings. A new task force composed of Travis County officials will be meeting throughout the next few months to summarize the structure of fee and fine collection and suggest potential policy changes to address the issue. 

Photo above courtesy of ACLU.

Big Issues Last Week

As the session heats up and bills are being heard in committees, this is a great time to check in on where things stand on several issues Texans greatly care about, including expanding health care access to uninsured people, local control of communities, rising property taxes and long-overdue criminal justice reforms to name a few.

 

Medicaid Expansion

This morning, advocacy groups, citizens, and several HDC members gathered on the front steps of the Capitol to speak out for the need for Texas to accept the billions of federal dollars for Medicaid expansion. They braved the cold for such a great cause, and the rally came at a good time. Tomorrow, the House Committee on Insurance will hear, for the first time in 6 years, a bill regarding the expansion of Medicaid.

Chairman Coleman, the bill’s author, joins several other Democrats leading the effort to expand coverage in the state, including Reps. Beckley, Bucy, Israel, Rosenthal, Bernal, and Reynolds to name a few.

 

The ‘Lavinia Masters Act’

Rep. Victoria Neave should be commended for her tremendous, bipartisan leadership on an issue that deserves our full attention: justice for rape survivors. Her bill, named after Lavinia Masters, a survivor in Dallas, would require an audit to determine the number, status and location of all rape kits in Texas. It is a serious step towards bringing true justice to Texans who need help the most.

As Rep. Neave said:

“Every rape kit sitting on a shelf represents a survivor waiting for justice. House Bill 8 seeks to address the circumstances in Lavinia’s case that led to the delay in the testing of her rape kit so that, in future cases, victims are not denied justice.”

 

Raising the Minimum Wage

This year, we have seen several representatives file bills to raise the state’s minimum wage. These bills would put needed money into the pockets of those who work hard to earn a livable income for themselves and their families. The minimum wage hasn’t been increased since 2009, and it’s about time we get to work fixing that.

 

Property Taxes

On Wednesday, the House Committee on Ways and Means heard testimony on HB 2. While we are glad that the process set by Chairman Burrows is transparent and is not being rushed like its Senate companion was, localities in Texas have serious concerns about the bill. We share some of those same concerns. HB 2 does not lower property taxpayers’ bills, while ultimately tying the hands of our cities and counties.

 

As the Legislature considers even more bills in the coming days, House Democrats will keep in mind what Texans truly want the Legislature to address, and stay focused on providing real solutions for all Texans.

Raise the Age Bill Passes Texas House

After many sessions of trying, Rep. Harold Dutton, Jr. successfully passed an important criminal justice raise-the-age bill that will have a tremendous impact for Texas families.

Current state law requires a 17-year old to be tried in the adult criminal justice system. Rep. Dutton’s “raise the age” bill changes that so that you aren’t automatically tried as an adult unitl you are 18-years old. Raising the age will help reduce recidivism rates, and ensure age-apprporiate rehabilitation for younger teens.

The bill, one of many examples of smart criminal justice policy reforms offered by Rep. Dutton and House Democrats this session, now heads to the Senate for consideration.