Bill aims at cutting criminal justice debt

Bill aims at cutting criminal justice debt

By Jessica Priest

Inspired by what he sees as a proliferation of debtor prisons, a state representative has filed a bill that permits judges to waive fines and fees imposed on poor people charged with Class C misdemeanors.

But some say judges already have the discretion to do what State Rep. James White’s House Bill 50 permits.

“What this bill would do is allow the judge to make that (indigency) determination at any time. There wouldn’t have to be, necessarily, a default on payment,” said Ryan Turner, the general counsel and director of education for the Texas Municipal Courts Education Center.

Because the education center is publicly funded, it doesn’t take positions on legislation. The center instead closely monitors legislation because it needs to be prepared for the four classes it teaches in August, which thousands of people attend.

White, R-Woodville, said in an interview with the Victoria Advocate that he became interested in what he calls “criminal justice debt” after researching payday lenders and the Driver Responsibility Program.

Created in 2003, the Driver Responsibility Program requires drivers convicted of certain traffic offenses to pay annual surcharges on top of any fines and court costs to maintain their license.

Earlier this year, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition reported that 1.3 million drivers have invalid licenses because of the program, and Democrats and Republicans agreed it was disenfranchising and called for scrapping it, according to the Texas Tribune.

One of the reasons the Driver Responsibility Program hasn’t been scrapped is it supports state trauma hospitals. If HB 50 were to pass, it would affect state coffers, too, but “that’s not an excuse to continue running in defiance or contrary to our U.S. and Texas constitutions, case law and statutes,” White said.

“Even as Republicans, we probably want to keep the government kind of big, and we have relied on criminal justice fees to do this, and we need to stop that,” White said.

In Victoria Municipal Court this year, about $1.3 million state fees were assessed and $1.5 million city fines were assessed. The balance due was more than $307,000 and 1,033 warrants were issued.

Turner doesn’t like the debtor prison rhetoric because he thinks it is divisive.

“The law is the law. The judges don’t get to make the law, and it’s certainly not fair for any critic to say, ‘Golly, these judges are so evil to follow a law that was passed by lawful means,” Turner said.

He thinks every jail or prison is a debtor prison because people go there to pay their debt to society.

“The real question is, are people being afforded due process?” he said.

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