Dallas County

Fewer Fines on Criminal Defendants Could Help Taxpayers

The goal is fewer inmates using expensive jail space.

A plan to reduce or eliminate certain fines and fees for criminal defendants could wind up saving taxpayers money, county officials said.

Dallas County has received a grant to review the list of fees from top to bottom to determine what adjustments could be made.

"You don't want to be a part, as the government, of a system that just keeps people in poverty and keeps them coming before the court," said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. "You want them to get a good job, take care of their family, meet their obligations."

Former Dallas County Jail Inmate Mia Vasquez spent more than three years in the Dallas County Jail waiting for trial in a federal drug case.

In that time, she said she saw many other women who went in and out of jail repeatedly, unable to comply with court orders.

"They were there because they violated their probation, the conditions, because they didn't pay their fines. That was the main issue," Vasquez said. "How do I get that money, you know, getting my basic needs met. I need a place to stay."

In 2018, Dallas County received a total of $24,005,390 in fines and court costs from 26,100 defendants.

Jenkins said the fines are intended to deter defendants from committing more crime but they may create a motive for more crime. He said a study in New Orleans showed most fines are paid by family members and not by the defendant.

"We need to look at what fees are working and what fees aren't working," Jenkins said.

If changes resulted in housing around 300 to 400 fewer inmates, Jenkins said Dallas County taxpayers could save around $20 million a year by closing one of the jail towers.

"Over time, what you're going to see is a better outcome for all 2.7 million people because what you're going to have is less people in the jail," Jenkins said.

Vasquez said even a 6 month delay in payments for inmates leaving jail could help put them on a more productive footing.

"Just give me some time. Let me get my life together," she said.

Vasquez was eventually sentenced to several months less for the drug case than she spent in jail waiting for sentencing. She now has a good job to help support her family.

For other inmates, Dallas County Commissioners will discuss the study of fines and fees next month.

It is part of a broader push for criminal justice reform that includes a different approach to pretrial release.

"The situation we have right now is exactly opposite of what is best for society," Jenkins said. "We let a person out of jail within hours if they have money. And who has money? Well if you're in a criminal enterprise, a gang, then you already have your contact with a bail bondsman, and you're going to get out like that."

Dallas County faces court orders to make pretrial release changes that would be based on the risk a defendant poses to society and not on money.

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