A new study shows a high rate of incarceration for fine-only offenses in Texas, particularly in Travis County.
The study from social justice advocacy nonprofit Texas Appleseed found more than 30,000 jail bookings for class C misdemeanors across 11 Texas counties in 2017. Those are offenses that are typically punishable by a citation of up to $500 – without required jail time.
Overall, misdemeanor bookings outweighed those for felonies in an 11-county analysis. That snapshot also includes class B misdemeanors, which are punishable by up to 180 days in jail, and class A misdemeanors, which are punishable by up to a year in jail.
But those class C jail bookings reflect what Texas Appleseed and others see as an unnecessary strain on the criminal justice system and a burden for defendants, said Mary Mergler, Texas Appleseed's director of its criminal justice project.
"Most misdemeanors are nonviolent offenses – and we know that. You know, even a short stay in jail can have a really lasting impact on someone's life, and we need to be using jail in a very different way than we're using right now," she said. "This data shows that."
Driving while intoxicated led the list of most common charges in the report, followed by possession of marijuana, possession of controlled substance, theft and assault causing bodily injury involving family violence. Traffic violations – which are class C misdemeanors – were the sixth most common charge statewide.
Mergler said data also showed that those booked on class C and class B misdemeanors had extended pre-trial stays in jails. For example, more than 24,000 people booked for those misdemeanors spent more than three days in jail, with more than half of those people spending more than 10 days.
Of the 11 Texas counties, Travis County led in both the share and the number of misdemeanor bookings. About one in six jail bookings in 2017, 7,279, were for non-jailable class C misdemeanors.
"This was one of the highest percentages in the counties we analyzed," Mergler said, "meaning law enforcement agencies in Travis County are booking more people into jail for these type of offenses relative to agencies in other counties."
In that same timeframe, Travis County jails booked 13,102 people on class B charges. Mergler said, in a lot of instances, those bookings for class B misdemeanors are at the discretion of law enforcement. Both Travis County and the Austin Police Department have discretionary arrest policies for nonviolent offenses like driving with an invalid license or possession of marijuana.
African Americans represented 25 percent of bookings in Travis County – an outsized proportion given African Americans represent roughly 9 percent of the population in the Austin area. Mergler said she hopes Austin and Travis County both adopt policies to address that "alarming" disparity.
At the state level, Texas Appleseed has asked lawmakers to pass House Bill 482, a bill from longtime Houston state Rep. Senfronia Thompson that would ban law enforcement from jailing people accused of class C misdemeanors unless there's a warrant. That bill is currently in a House committee.