Justice doesn’t have to take a toll

Most Americans embrace the concept that incarceration is for people we are afraid of, not those we are mad it. Are we afraid of our fellow Americans who haven’t paid a traffic fine or court fee?

Put another way, who is really scared of an Austin mother of five named Valerie Gonzales who in 2016 was jailed for 45 days because she could not pay $1,000 in traffic fines despite working three jobs?

Nonetheless, about one-fifth of Americans entering county jails are admitted because of failure to pay a government-imposed fine or fee. Debtors’ prisons harm the people incarcerated — they often lose their jobs and have their vehicles impounded, which only makes it harder for them to pay the money they owe. 

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This misuse of jails is also too tough on taxpayers, who bear the average cost of $80 a day per inmate. In Texas and many other states, the time served in jail discharges the fine or fee, meaning it is never collected — a double whammy for local government budgets and the taxpayers who support them.

While few Americans relish the idea of debtors’ prisons, critics have warned that reforms would lead to less money being collected. Yet this has not happened in Texas, where two bills were approved in the 2017 legislative session to require courts to use other alternatives before resorting to jail. These alternatives include reducing the amount commensurate with a person’s ability to pay and offering community service.

In September 2018, the Office of Court Administration released data showing that thousands fewer Texans were being jailed for failure to pay since the legislation went into effect, and moreover the amount of funds collected per case actually rose by nearly 7 percent.

Also, an additional 5,000 cases were at least partially resolved by community service, which means more Texans were putting in sweat equity to improve the quality of life in their communities.

Even with this progress, more reforms are needed throughout the country. All courts should be required to make an upfront determination of a person’s ability to pay and every financial imposition, other than restitution for crime victims, should be adjusted or waived based on this determination.

While community service is a worthwhile option, courts must ensure it is proportional and workable based on the individual’s schedule, taking into account work obligations and family emergencies. As for restitution, payment plans are often appropriate.

We conservatives realize the heavy toll that high taxes take on Americans and are skeptical when governments want to add to this burden. The same skepticism is warranted when it comes to the justice system.

If someone steals from another person, the role of government is to ensure the victim is made whole. Too often the system compounds the harm that has already been done to the victim by sinking its teeth into the perpetrator to collect money for the government before the victim is even compensated, if ever. Restorative justice approaches such as victim-offender mediation avoids court costs and fees, achieves higher rates of victim satisfaction and restitution, and reduces recidivism.

Fortunately, jurisdictions across the country are prioritizing public safety and victims over excessive fines and fees. For example, in 2017 Louisiana outlawed debtors’ prisons for adults. If a state that is 44th in per-capita income and only this year lost its title as the nation’s top incarcerator can stop putting a price on justice, surely the rest of the country can as well.

Marc Levin (@MarcALevin) is Vice President of Criminal Justice Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and its Right on Crime initiative.