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Featured: Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, addresses fellow lawmakers from the front podium in the chamber of the Texas House of Representatives during the first half of the 140-day 85th Regular Session of the Texas Legislature, which began in mid-January 2017.

Photograph By HOUSE PHOTOGRAPHY

The long-standing practice statewide of jailing tens of thousands of Texans who are too poor to pay expensive fines for Class C misdemeanors, such as traffic tickets, could soon come to an end under legislation by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, which has been strongly approved by the Texas House of Representatives. “In Texas, tens of thousands of people are being sent to jail each year for failure to pay tickets, fines and fees arising from court cases,” said Canales, an attorney. “We have too many Texans statewide who are struggling to pay rent and groceries, then they wind up getting ticketed for the most minor offenses, such as traffic violations. In the effort by government to squeeze money out of indigent Texans, taxpayers end up paying to jail these minor offenders.” House Bill 351, which received final approval on Thursday, March 23, 2017 from the House of Representatives, would 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 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.

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Controversial practice of jailing Texans too poor to pay fines for petty offenses, such as traffic tickets, could be coming to an end following House vote in support of plan by Rep. Canales

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
Legislativemedia@aol.com

The long-standing practice statewide of jailing thousands of Texans who are too poor to pay expensive fines for Class C misdemeanors, such as traffic tickets, could soon come to an end under legislation by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, which has been strongly approved by the Texas House of Representatives.

“In Texas, tens of thousands of people are being sent to jail each year for failure to pay tickets, fines and fees arising from court cases,” said Canales, an attorney. “We have too many Texans statewide who are struggling to pay rent and groceries, then they wind up getting ticketed for the most minor offenses, such as traffic violations. In the effort by government to squeeze money out of indigent Texans, taxpayers end up paying to jail these minor offenders.”

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.

House Bill 351, which received final approval on Thursday, March 23, 2017 from the House of Representatives, would 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.

Canales, who is the primary author of HB 351, 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, serve as joint authors.

In the Texas Legislature, an author (also called the primary author) is the legislator who files a bill and guides it through the legislative process.

In the House of Representatives, a joint author is a member authorized by the primary author of a bill or resolution to join in the authorship of the measure and have his or her name shown following the primary author’s name on official printings of the measure, on calendars, and in the journal. The primary author may authorize up to four joint authors.

Canales said he would soon announce who will carry HB 351 in the Senate.

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).

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 Coalition; Ted Wood, Harris County Public Defender’s Office; Mary Mergler, Texas Appleseed; Emily Gerrick, Texas Fair Defense Project; Haley Holik, Texas Public Policy Foundation; Chris Howe;

(Registered, but did not testify: Nicholas Hudson, American Civil Liberties Union of Texas; Goodman Holiday, Austin Justice Coalition; Charles Reed, Dallas County Commissioners Court; Jesse Ozuna, City of Houston Mayor’s Office; Kathryn Freeman, Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission; David González, Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association; Kathy Mitchell, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition; Deanna L. Kuykendall, Texas Municipal Courts Association; Rachel Malone)

Against — None

BACKGROUND:

Code of Criminal Procedure, art. 43.09(f) provides that a judge may assign community service to a criminal defendant who is unable to pay the court fines or costs. For a defendant who defaults on fines or costs, art. 43.091 allows a judge to waive all or part of the fines or costs assessed if the defendant is indigent or under the age of 17 and alternative methods would yield undue hardship to the defendant.

DIGEST:

HB 351 would allow judges to assess community service in lieu of fines or court costs at initial sentencing or any subsequent time regardless of whether the defendant had defaulted on assessed fees or costs.

A judge could waive all or part of the fines or costs assessed without first waiting for the defendant to default.

The bill would take effect September 1, 2017.

SUPPORTERS SAY:

HB 351 would clarify the intended purpose of current law, which is that judges should consider criminal defendants’ ability to pay fines and court costs before sentencing them. Currently, in some circumstances an indigent criminal defendant must default before the court rules that the individual is truly unable to pay. This bill would help put the justice system’s time and resources to more efficient use by determining indigence at the initial sentencing, rather than waiting for the defendant to default, possibly get arrested, and come back before the judge again.

Local governments would not lose revenue as a result of this change and could save money by avoiding the costs of housing and feeding in jail those people who could least afford a disruption in their ability to earn.

This bill could reduce indigent defendants’ apprehension about dealing with the court system by addressing their inability to pay fines or court costs earlier in the process. Many indigent defendants are afraid to go to court, either because of work and family obligations or because they do not think they will be able to afford whatever they are asked to pay. This can result in further criminal sanctions that can be more severe than the initial charge, leading to even more involvement in the criminal justice system.

Concerns about a negative impact on the justice system are misplaced. The bill simply would clarify that indigent defendants are protected under state law from confinement solely for their inability to pay a fine without first being provided a realistic alternative.

OPPONENTS SAY:

HB 351 is unnecessary because under current law when indigent defendants are unable to pay a fine, in most cases they can explain their situation to a court and the court will work with them.

The criminal justice system relies primarily on fines to deter low-level offenses. Even incremental changes could contribute to a culture in which there is decreased incentive to comply with the law. Localities also could lose money used to help cover the costs associated with some convictions.

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Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, represents House District 40 in Hidalgo County, which includes portions or all of Edinburg, Elsa, Faysville, La Blanca, Linn, Lópezville, McAllen, Pharr and Weslaco. He may be reached at his House District Office in Edinburg at (956) 383-0860 or at the Capitol at (512) 463-0426.

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