Rep. Canales’ plan to do away with “debtors prisons” for poor people who can’t pay traffic fines and other minor offenses approved by Texas Legislature and on its way to Gov. Abbott

State lawmakers on Friday, May 26, 2017, approved House Bill 351 by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, which will help do away with a decades-old injustice which results in hundreds of thousands of Texans going to jail every year because they are too poor to pay fines for traffic tickets and other Class C misdemeanors.

Canales said HB 351 represents a “sweeping reform” of the state’s criminal justice system.

“In Texas, at the rate we are going, we were going to eventually be throwing a million poor people in jail every year for failure to pay tickets, fines and fees arising from court cases,” explained the House District 40 lawmaker, who is an attorney. “We have too many Texans statewide who are struggling to pay rent and groceries, then they wind up getting ticketed and getting jailed for the most minor offenses, such as traffic violations.”

For Class C misdemeanors, there is no jail time, and the fine is limited up to $500. But a person can be put in jail for not paying the fines, and other related costs, such as failure to appear in court.

Canales added that taxpayers wind up paying more because through the costs it takes to look after people who are in local jails for petty crimes.

“This whole system of putting poor people in jail has become a convenient cash cow for our government, who want to squeeze money out of indigent Texans,” he said. “HB 351 provides a much better way for minor offenders to pay their debt to society without unjustly putting them behind bars.”

Canales is the primary author of HB 351 while Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, by carrying HB 351 in the Senate, is the primary sponsor of the legislation.

The legislator who files a bill and guides it through the legislative process is the author (also called the primary author). The Senate allows multiple primary authors for each bill or resolution. The House of Representatives allows only one primary author, the house member whose signature appears on the original measure and on the copies filed with the chief clerk.

Both chambers also have coauthors, and the house of representatives has joint authors.

The measure, which won final support in the House of Representatives on a huge, bipartisan vote of 132 Yeas, 11 Nays, and 2 Present, Not Voting, is on the way to the governor for his approval.

HB 351 includes comprehensive changes recommended by the Texas Judicial Council to provide judges with new tools and procedures to hold low-income Texans accountable without jail time when they cannot pay their fines and court costs in criminal cases.

HB 351 will help clear up confusion in existing state law so local judges, including justices of the peace, can allow the defendant to perform community service instead of being thrown into jail when they are found to be indigent.

“At the time of sentencing, judges should also be making judgments on whether defendants can even pay the fines that are levied,” Canales said. “Low-income Texans are being set up to fail by the way fines and fees are handled, and they are often driven deeper into poverty.”

A defendant who has the money to pay the fine, but refuses to pay it, would still face the risk of being jailed by a judge, he added.

HB 351 would also help save taxpayers’ money because of the hidden costs, such as the expenses and legal responsibilities involved in holding a person in jail.

“The valuable resources of our judicial and law enforcement professionals, and especially our jails, should remain focused on putting violent criminals, thieves and robbers behind bars, not on poor people charged with an offense whose only punishment is a fine,” said the House District 40 state representative.

HINOJOSA: “OUR CURRENT SYSTEM IS COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE”

Hinojosa, also an attorney, agreed with the need for Canales’ legislation.

“Our current system is counter-productive, and it traps people into a cycle of debt when they cannot pay their tickets and other low-level, fine-only citations. Our current practice also leads to license suspensions and arrest warrants,” said Hinojosa. “In 2015, fines in over 677,00 cases were satisfied through jail credit and over 230,000 Texas were unable to renew expired licenses until their fines and fees were paid off.”

HB 351 allows courts to ask about a defendant’s ability to pay during the sentencing phase, Hinojosa explained.

“After making that determination, courts would be allowed to reduce or waive fines and costs and offer community service as an alternative. In 2015, judges resolved fine-only cases with community service just 1.3 percent of the time,” Hinojosa said. “HB 351 seeks to put the justice system’s time and resources to more efficient use by holding people accountable while saving money and increasing public safety.”

ZAFFIRINI: DISMANTLING “A MODERN-DAY DEBTORS’ PRISON SYSTEM”

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, was carrying legislation similar to Canales’ HB 351, in a legislative move known as an amendment – after obtaining Canales’ and Hinojosa’s support – was able to add other key provisions to HB 351 that otherwise may have failed because the Texas Legislature was in its final days.

She said HB 351, with the language of her own legislation, Senate Bill 1913, added to the Canales/Hinojosa version, will also help dismantle what she calls a modern-day “debtors’ prison” system.

“For at least four decades the U.S. Supreme Court has dictated that imprisoning a defendant for inability to pay fines denies equal protection and that a person cannot be punished for his or her poverty,” she said. “Despite this, debtors’ prisons persist in our state in jurisdictions that trap low-income Texans in a cycle of debt, license suspensions, arrest warrants and jail time when they cannot afford to pay traffic tickets and other low-level, fine-only citations.”

HB 351, with her amendment, “would reduce the number of persons trapped in this vicious cycle,” Zaffirini said.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, is the House sponsor of Zaffirini’s SB 1913.

Canales noted the bipartisan help that HB 351 received throughout the legislative process.

“As passed by the House of Representatives, and then approved by the Senate, we drew support from Democrats and Republicans for HB 351, which featured Rep. James White, R-Hillister, who also serves as Chair of the House Committee on Corrections, along with Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-Brownsville, who serves as Chair of the House Committee on Rules and Resolutions, Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, and Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Kerville, serving as joint authors,” he said. “As always, Sen. Hinojosa did an outstanding job in the Senate, and I was proud to support and secure House approval for Sen. Zaffirini’s amendment to HB 351 .”

Investigations by the media and governmental entities have found that low-income Texans are jailed frequently for inability to pay traffic tickets, according to Zaffirini.

When they cannot pay their tickets, they lose their driver’s licenses and cannot renew their vehicle registrations, making it illegal for them to drive to work. If they drive to pick up children from school or go to work, they may receive additional tickets for driving without a license and registration, accumulating more fines, court costs, and fees.

“What’s more, when they cannot pay the additional fines or court costs, warrants are issued for their arrest, and they may be jailed for days, weeks or even months. Tens of thousands of people are booked into county jails each year for fine-only offenses alone,” she said. “While in jail, these persons may lose their jobs and housing, jeopardize their families and be driven deeper into poverty.”

As a condition of community supervision, HB 351 also allows a judge to require participation in a pretrial diversion program, said Hinojosa.

Furthermore, HB 351 extends the “Commission to Study Certain Penal Codes” to review criminal offenses outside the penal code and updates the threshold ladder for forgery crimes related to fake checks, money orders and other simple transactions to match the penalty ladder for the rest of Texas’ theft offenses.

Current law designates ‘fake checks’ to be an automatic state jail felony,” Hinojosa said. “This would create consistency and keep non-violent offenders out of Texas state jails.”

HB 351 also addresses the concerns of one of the more influential leaders in state: Nathan L. Hecht, the 27th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas.

“Jailing criminal defendants who cannot pay their fines and court costs commonly called debtors’ prison – keeps them from jobs, hurts their families, makes them dependent on society, and costs the taxpayers money. Most importantly, it is illegal under the United States Constitution,” Hecht said during his State of Judiciary in Texas, which he delivered to the Texas Legislature at the Capitol on Wednesday, February 1, 2017.

Hecht is also active in the Court’s efforts to assure that Texans living below the poverty level, as well as others with limited means, have access to basic civil legal services, according to the Supreme Court’s website (http://www.txcourts.gov/supreme/about-the-court/justices/chief-justice-nathan-l-hecht.aspx).

TRANSITION COMMITTEE ON CRIMINAL JUSTICE

A comprehensive study prepared by the City of Houston and published on March 1, 2016, titled “Mayor Sylvester Turner, Transition Committee on Criminal Justice”, found that poor residents in the nation’s fourth largest city were being unfairly treated. This is a serious issue that affects economically-disadvantaged Texans statewide,” Canales noted.

The Transition Committee on Criminal Justice also reflected that “when people receive traffic citations or fine-only misdemeanor citations, the economically well off can easily just pay the fine and be done with the process.

“From going to various pay centers around the city, or using a 24-7 payment machine in the court building, or paying online, or at the courthouse, or by mail, resolving one’s debt to the court is a trivial annoyance for the well off—an annoyance that still stands as an insufficient deterrent to dangerous driving,” the Transition Committee on Criminal Justice continued.

“The poor, however, face great hardships when citations result in fines. State law requires judges to account for indigence in setting punishment; judges can waive the fine and court fee and offer alternatives like community service, reduction of fines, and fine waivers for poor defendants. However, data suggests these alternatives are infrequently offered,” the report further found.

Some examples of Class C misdemeanors in Texas include:

• Bail jumping;
• Criminal trespassing;
• Disorderly conduct;
• Driving under the influence of alcohol by a minor;
• Gambling;
• Insufficient funds check less than $20;
• Leaving a child in a vehicle;
• Minor in possession of alcohol;
• Minor in possession of tobacco;
• Most traffic tickets;
• Petty theft less than $50;
• Possession of alcoholic beverage in a motor vehicle;
• Possession of drug paraphernalia;
• Public intoxication; and
• Simple assault.

The entire report is available online at:

(https://www.houstontx.gov/mayor/transitionreports/criminal_justice.pdf).

The House Research Organization (HRO), which is the nonpartisan research arm of the House of Representatives, provide a report on the background, pros and cons of HB 351, which was provided to all state representatives on Wednesday, March 22, 2017, when the bill was first heard and debated by the lawmakers.

The HRO bill analysis focused on HB 351 as it was approved by the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence on Monday, March 13, 2017. The following changes, known as amendments, were added to the bill, and accepted by Canales, when it was considered by the full House of Representatives on Wednesday, March 22, 2017:

• An amendment by Murr, one of the joint authors of HB 351, was added to make sure that if a defendant fails to do their community service, the amount of the fine or cost would be reinstated and due. It also makes clear that a defendant could still be required to pay an administrative fee for the administration of the defendant’s community service; and

• An amendment by Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, changes the definition of child from “17 and under” to “18 and younger” so that under certain conditions, an 18-year-old is considered a juvenile and not an adult.” Dutton, who serves as Chair of the House Committee on Juvenile Justice and Family Issues, through his amendment, changes a portion of Article 45.058 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.

Not including the amendments by Murr and Dutton, the HRO bill analysis provided the following background for HB 351 as it was presented to the full House of Representatives on Wednesday, March 22, 2017:

SUBJECT:

Making judicial determinations of indigence at initial sentencing Criminal Jurisprudence — favorable, without amendment

COMMITTEE:

7 ayes — Moody, Hunter, Canales, Gervin-Hawkins, Hefner, Lang, Wilson
0 nays

WITNESSES:

For — Margaret “Peggy” Cook and Chas Moore, Austin Justice Coali