Bill Aims to Prevent Jail Time for Unpaid Tickets and Fines

AUSTIN - Rachel MacGruder was trying to get right with the law.The single mother with two disabled teenagers had fallen behind on payments to clear three traffic tickets, and she was headed to the courthouse in Waco last fall to get back on track.On her way into the building, she was arrested for failing to pay her fines and sentenced to 30 days in jail."I couldn't afford to sit in jail," MacGruder said. "I had just started a new job."Thousands of low-income Texans like MacGruder who fail to pay fines and fees for non-criminal offenses are landing in jails statewide. In 2015, just 10 municipal courts sentenced nearly 14,000 people to jail for fine-only offenses, according to Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit organization that advocates for public justice. Lawmakers have filed a measure that aims to reduce the number of people jailed for fine-only offenses. As the May 29 end of the legislative session approaches, criminal justice reform advocates are hopeful the measures will give indigent Texans more options to avoid expensive fines, fees and jail time."We're all paying jail costs for somebody who doesn't need to be in jail," said Emily Gerrick, staff attorney at the Texas Fair Defense Project.Texas Appleseed sought information from 30 municipal courts across Texas about the number of people jailed for fine-only offenses. They found that 10 courts incarcerated 13,955 people in cases that involved offenses that would typically result in only a fine. Arlington municipal court sentenced 4,590 people to jail in cases that only involved fines, and Plano sentenced more than 2,600. In Harris County municipal courts, Appleseed discovered that 1 in 7 of the 1,654 people who were jailed were homeless.  Continue reading...

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