That’s the staggering amount of criminal justice fees and fines Texas’ criminal courts have imposed on defendants between 2012 and 2018. That may look like a windfall to the state, but imposing a fee or a fine shouldn’t be confused with actually collecting them.
A recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice (with research help from the Texas Public Policy Foundation) found only about 61% of the fines and fees imposed in Texas were collected. This suggests that fees and fines are being levied without any meaningful consideration of whether the people, disproportionately charged with low-level misdemeanors, are able to pay.
As we work to ensure the criminal justice system is not unduly burdensome, we must be concerned when vulnerable Texans are being saddled with debts they cannot afford and that the state will never collect. The repercussions for those who cannot pay can be devastating.
They may be forced to serve time in jail, where they receive an hourly credit at minimum wage against their debt. This occurs despite court rulings that debtor’s prisons are unconstitutional, making it unlawful to jail someone just because they are unable to pay fees and fines.
Jailing for nonpayment is also enormously expensive, as it generates no revenue for the public’s benefit. Moreover, locking people up who pose no threat to the public leads to loss of employment, separates families, and harms communities. It ruins lives without any public safety benefit.
No one knows how much time public employees — judges, court clerks, police officers, sheriffs, parole and probation officers, correctional officers — are spending on collecting fees and fines rather than on public safety. This makes it impossible for policymakers to evaluate the true costs of funding the state’s court system through fines and fees.
But what we do know isn’t good. The Brennan Center’s study shows that the time spent in court on fees and fines and the costs of jailing those who cannot pay consumes about a third of every dollar collected in Texas. This represents more than 100 times the cost to collect a dollar of tax revenue. Fiscally, jailing for failure to pay is completely irrational.
However, there is good news.
In the past several years, Texas has led the way in reforming some of the more harmful and inefficient practices of collecting fees and fines. In 2017, Texas passed a bill that required judges to determine a person’s ability to pay and allowed them to grant waivers for those unable to pay as well as offer alternatives to jail. This has led to a double-digit drop in arrest warrants and a reduction of nearly 75,000 people being incarcerated for failure to pay fees and fines.
In 2019, the Legislature built on this reform, unanimously passing legislation to repeal the program that suspended drivers’ licenses, which will help 1.8 million Texans whose licenses have been suspended. In most states, people who cannot pay their fees and fines face suspension of their license, creating a terrible dilemma: Do they risk jail time by driving without a valid license to get to work and provide for their families?
But more reform is needed.
We should require courts set fines based on someone’s ability to pay, because what might be a $200 inconvenience to one person is an insurmountable debt to another.
Finally, Texas should build on the repeal of the Driver Responsibility Program by reining in the failure-to-pay portion of the “Omnibase” program, which accounts for more than 300,000 driver’s license suspensions. Currently, a $30 surcharge is attached to every traffic violation which is collected by the Omnibase company on behalf of the state. There is no indigency provision, so even those who cannot afford to pay the surcharge lose their driver’s license.
Texas courts should focus on justice, public safety, and rehabilitation. Tasking them with raising money from those who can least afford it undermines this core function of government.