Caucus Blog

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.

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