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Austin

Council Approves Alternatives to Jail Time for Unpaid Fines

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Pu Ying Huang/KUT

The Austin City Council approved a measure Thursday clarifying the process municipal judges use to deem someone incapable of paying a municipal fine –emphasizing community service as an alternative to jail time for unpaid fines.

District 2 Council Member Delia Garza brought the item forward in an effort to reduce the number of people being sent to jail for unpaid fines.

“I absolutely believe that our Austin judges are talented and caring and that they do a great job,” Garza said, clarifying that municipal fines are generally Class C misdemeanors, something such as a parking ticket or building without a permit. “But it is important that we pass this resolution to institutionalize best practices to ensure that they are used consistently and that no one accidentally falls through the cracks.”

A City Auditor report published in July found that between Sept. 2014 and August 2015, 19,591 people served out their fine with jail time.

The ordinance includes setting a baseline for indigency at 200 percent of the federal poverty level (which equates to an income of roughly $23,000 per year for an individual). It asks the City Manager Marc Ott and Austin’s Presiding Judge Sherry Statman to come up with jail alternatives, including community service hours, for those who cannot pay a fine. While state law allows judges to assign up to 16 hours per week of community service as an alternative to jail time, the city has asked the city manager and the presiding judge to devise guidelines to determine what amount of community service is appropriate.

State law requires municipal judges to take into account a person’s ability to pay before requiring a fine be served with jail time. But Presiding Judge Sherry Statman said that there remains some room for interpretation.

“[They] know what they’re supposed to do,” she said. “Each judge has discretion, so how they do it may vary from judge to judge.”

Garza emphasized that under these new rules, which still need to be voted on once the city manager and presiding judge bring back specific language, a municipal judge still maintains certain discretion.

“Nothing would prevent a judge after, let’s say, that person did not do their community service, nothing prevents that judge from taking other options at that point,” she said.

A city auditor report published in July found that between Sept. 2014 and August 2015, 19,591 people served out their fine with jail time. The data does not specify how many of these people were jailed because they could not afford the fine.

A lawsuit filed by the Texas Fair Defense Project against the City of Austin last October alleged that the municipal court overlooked peoples’ rights, and jailed those unable to pay fines without assessing their ability to do so and considering alternatives to jail. A judge dismissed that case in March.

Council members passed the item Thursday with a near unanimous vote. Council Member Don Zimmerman abstained.

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