In a move designed to keep people out of jail when they can’t afford their traffic tickets, Texas officials have proposed extended payment plans for people struggling to pay their fines and fees.
The Texas Judicial Council has also made it explicit that the state’s collection demands do not apply in cases where a defendant is found to be too poor to pay.
The move comes amid growing national controversy over the incarceration of people simply because they cannot afford to pay their fines — a practice that was outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1970s and 1980s but persists in many local jurisdictions. A BuzzFeed News article published last year exposed that judges across Texas were flouting the law and incarcerating people for fines they could not afford. The article, along with a wider “conversation at the national level” around these issues, led the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, Nathan Hecht, to review state policy, said David Slayton, administrative director of the Office of Court Administration.
The new rules, which were approved by the judicial council last month, could take effect later this year.
Texas municipal and justice of the peace courts — the courts that are responsible for traffic tickets and other low-level offenses — issue millions of dollars a year in fines. Defendants must also pay fees that get tacked on to their tickets, which are set aside for various government programs. If the new rules go into effect, people will have longer to pay those charges before facing jail.
Two municipal judges who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they felt the state Office of Court Administration’s previous rules put too much pressure on cities to collect fines and fees, creating burdensome requirements that made it harder for them to exercise their discretion and waive fees when it was in the interest of justice.
“We have judges for a reason — if we wanted this to be done by formula, we would get computers,” said one judge, who requested anonymity out of fear that state officials would retaliate by auditing his court.