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Courts Struggle To Collect Debt In Texas, Study Says. That’s Costly And Puts Poor Violators In Jail.

Travis County Justice of the Peace for Precinct 5 Judge Nick Chu
Gabriel C. Pérez
Travis County Justice of the Peace for Precinct 5 Judge Nick Chu presides over court in 2018.

Texas is chasing its tail when it comes to collecting court fees and fines, a new study says. And that inefficiency wastes courts' time and money – and keeps poor defendants in a cycle of poverty.

The analysis out today from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University suggests Texas, a state that leads the country in incarcerations for failure to pay court debt, faces systemic challenges on the road to reform. 

The Lone Star State isn't alone, though.

The Brennan Center's first-of-its-kind survey found New Mexico's and Florida's systems for court debt-collection also yield paltry returns. For example, Texas' and New Mexico's courts collectively spent 41 cents to collect a single dollar from defendants.

Chasing down that debt is both an expensive proposition and a burden for courts and defendants alike, according to the study's lead author, Matt Menendez, an attorney with the Brennan Center.

The cost to collect court debt between 2012 and 2017 grew in every one of the 10 counties examined in the study.

For defendants, Menendez says, the debt is more often than not tied to low-level offenses for driving without a license or without valid insurance, and courts levy fees and fines without considering a defendant's ability to pay.

"The balance has just been growing," Menendez said, "which ... strongly suggests that these fees and fines are being imposed without regard to whether or not people can actually pay them."

The study found 90% of these cases are handled by smaller courts, as opposed to state and district courts.

The debt associated with those caseloads adds up.

On average, Texas courts could not collect roughly 40% of fines and fees between 2012 and 2018.

Courts in Travis County face a similar uphill battle in collecting debt from defendants. Of the money it could collect in 2017, roughly 35% went toward the collection process.  Overall, uncollected court debt ballooned to nearly $18 million from 2012 to 2017.

Courts regularly waive debt from low-income defendants – courts within Travis County forgave $8.6 million in fees and fines in 2017 alone – but courts also rely on the so-called jail credit system, in which defendants serve time in lieu of paying debt, to clear that backlog. Menendez said that reliance concerns him because jailing people costs the county money and, in the end, defendants aren't paying much of their debt down. The system operates, more or less, at a loss.

"When people are jailed, they are credited minimum wage, hourly, against their fee and fine amount owed," he said, "which, one, brings in zero revenue, and, two, is extremely costly, because incarceration is extremely costly."

The center's study calls for an end to fine- and fee-based revenue models and recommends paying for court operations with taxpayer funds. Menendez says that would be a more cost-effective model – but not one tax-averse Texas lawmakers would adopt.

"Fees and fines, I think, are a relatively easy political lift for lawmakers to turn to when they face budget shortfalls," Menendez said. "Fees and fines disproportionately impact communities of color and low-income communities, and they tend not to be particularly politically influential. So, for lawmakers, it seems like that is an easier route than finding new taxes to impose."

Still, the Brennan Center sees bright spots of reform in Texas, namely the repeal of the oft-maligned Driver Responsibility Program. Lawmakers unanimously voted this year to repeal that program, which used fines from traffic offenses to help fund trauma centers throughout the state.

The nonprofit Equal Justice Under Law sued the state in 2018 over the DRP, arguing it unconstitutionally suspended the licenses of roughly 1.5 million Texans and trapped poor defendants in a cycle of poverty by compounding fines if someone couldn't pay promptly. The case is still pending in federal court, partially because the state is still suspending licenses through a contractor.

According to data obtained by KUT from the Department of Public Safety, there were still more than 212,000 license suspensions in October. While nearly 34,000 of those suspensions were because of convictions or charges of driving while intoxicated, nearly half of those suspensions were for driving without a valid license and driving without insurance.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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