For the Poor, Texas' Justice System Is a Maze With No Exit

This piece was originally posted in the Houston Chronicle.

Dee Arellano had just parked her car in downtown Houston when she was approached by a police officer on horseback. The officer cited her because her vehicle registration had lapsed, a common infraction.

A single mother of an 8-year-old boy, Dee was spending what little income she had to feed her family and put herself through school so she could give her son a better life. This single infraction led to a five-year struggle to satisfy her financial penalties, a major factor in her decision to drop out of school. With the stroke of a police officer's pen, a promising, hard-fought future was pushed out of reach — for a nonviolent and low-level offense like a traffic ticket.

As the ACLU of Texas details in a new white paper, people who can't afford their traffic tickets find Texas' criminal justice system a bureaucratic labyrinth from which there is no escape. We pile on fees and then punish the poor for being poor. In addition to the cost of a fine, jurisdictions tack on a host of other absurd charges — for example, an "indigent defense fee," though indigent people are provided no lawyer for their defense — that make it almost impossible for low-income Texans to settle up with a single payment. And while judges can convert this unaffordable debt into a payment plan, there's an additional fee for that, too.

Court-ordered payment plans can be merciless: Failing to make payments as ordered — a single day late, a single dollar short — triggers a cascading spate of consequences that can destroy livelihoods and devastate families. In addition to the warrant (and the warrant fee) generated by the late payment, state departments of public safety and of motor vehicles often levy additional charges and refuse to renew licenses and registrations until fines and fees are paid. Low-income Texans thus regularly find themselves unable to legally drive to the jobs they need to pay off their ever-expanding debt. The prospect of paying off this debt in full becomes so remote that people give up; many end up in jail, for what the law defines as nonjailable offenses.

What I often hear at this point in the story is, "Well, they shouldn't have broken the law." We agree: Everyone should receive a proportional punishment for speeding or failures to signal or lapsed registrations. No one should have their life derailed for these minor offenses. No one should go to jail for them.

All of us bear the costs associated with this broken system. Jails cost taxpayers money. Public safety is threatened when cops and judges spend all their time working as debt collectors. And this system still vastly and disproportionately affects people of color, perpetuating racial injustices with roots in the Reconstruction Era.

Two weeks ago, three plaintiffs represented by the ACLU of Texas filed suit against the city of Santa Fe, one of the worst abusers of this system. The plaintiffs are people who either have been or will be jailed for nonjailable offenses, all because they can't afford to pay a fine.

Jail time shouldn't depend on the size of your wallet. Our hope is to impose just, humane, and common-sense solutions that can be reproduced in jurisdictions throughout the state.

First, we must require judges to heed their existing legal obligations, tailor fines to what low-income defendants can realistically afford, and stop jailing defendants for their inability to pay. We must eliminate excessive and unfair court costs and fees that make it impossible for people to exit the criminal justice system no matter how hard they try.

And finally, we must ensure that everyone is informed of their rights and responsibilities when they find themselves in local court.

Dee Arellano was one of the lucky ones. In the end she managed to find a good job and pay off everything she owed without seeing the inside of a jail cell. But tens of thousands of other Texans will be caught in a maze with no exit until we reform our broken system.

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Anonymous

Unfortunately, this is all too true. My son was arrested for DUI (along with every other friend's son) and entered into the Divergent Program. As a college student, there was absolutely no way he could afford that opportunity without our help which he received. All I could think about was - what was happening to someone else's son?
I'm thankful the program exists and my son's record was expunged but I'm more thankful that I had a job to help pay for it. (It's irrelevant if he was over the limit or not-once charged, it COSTS to defend oneself.)

AnonymousRhaman

"Common" infraction? No registration also means no insurance. Also, each state has 60 to 90 days to renew. Also, this is yearly and not too expensive. To lapse registration is serious and can be easily avoided. It also can easily be paid. Sorry, but if a person cannot afford $35 for registration, there is something wrong. Of course you added single mother with a child as a human factor. If she had had a serious crash, what about the victim?

Anonymous

No registration does NOT mean no insurance.

Anonymous

I know you may not be able to comprehend, but yes, some people can not afford $35 for registration. Then if they get a ticket for no registration (which as stated already does not mean, no insurance), they can not afford the ticket, then they can not afford the fines, then they end up in jail, then they lose their job. Then as in my own son's case, when their inspection was expired and another vehicle crashed into them, they were afraid to call the cops since another ticket would be added that they couldn't pay and had to drive illegally to get to work to pay off the fines they can't afford. It's an insane system.

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Fred

Thank you for confronting this injustice.

Stephaney

This happened to me and so far has derailed my life for five years! ! Thank you for working on it.

Anonymous

About three years ago I got a series of traffic tickets in fort worth. I couldn't pay the tickets, and ended up with warrants.I went to jail and was put on a payment plan. I made payments until I went into the hospital for a month for surgery and missed a payment. Again, warrants were issued and they put me on yet another payment plan, but now my fines are several thousand dollars. End Of story I still owe thousands even after paying all my surcharges, and going to jail three or four times for a non jailable offense. It would take me years and years to pay them off now and I'm disabled. How can I get it to end?

Anonymous

I hate reading things like this. Over 50 years ago they taught us in school that one of the reasons that our system of government and justice was better than everybody else in the world was that we do not have Debtor's Prisons or workhouses here. Even as a child, the idea of throwing someone in jail because they were poor made me shudder.

Well here we are in the Post Millenial, Brave New World, and what do we have?

Debtor's prisons and workhouses (private prisons).

Social Security Disability and Suplemental Security Income are immune from all debt collection mechanisms that do not come directly from the Federal Government (say student loan debt or back taxes. But I don't know what indirect consequences for you there might be for trying to claim your rights in the face of the backward ignorance of typical Texan law-enforcement-related bureaucrats.

Also if you have any income other than SSD or SSI, that is not protected; the status of real property (such as a home or farm) that was owned prior to your disability may be at risk as well. But if ALL you have is SSD or SSI, it might be worth your while to consult a lawyer to find out how to invoke the regulations about SSD/SSI income being immune to suit or seizure.

I know, costs money, which is the whole problem. But usually the consultation is free, at least.

I am so sorry this is happening to you.

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