Study Prompts 'Deeper Dive' Into Court Debt, Fines Levied On Poor Defendants In Travis County

Jan 14, 2020

Travis County is re-examining its system of fines and fees with the goal of producing a more equitable system to better collect court debt and consider the impact on poor defendants.

The first leg of a three-part discussion Tuesday at the Travis County Commissioners Court was prompted by a sweeping study of court debt from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University released in November.

The first-of-its-kind survey found the system of court debt collection in Travis County yields paltry returns and can financially hobble low-income defendants who can't pay fines and fees.

The study found uncollected debts of courts in Travis County, which include municipal courts, ballooned to $18 million between 2012 and 2017. Of the money the county's courts could collect in 2017, roughly 35% went toward the collection process itself. 

The study also highlighted the larger problem of using these fees to pay for court operations themselves.

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

Emily Gerrick, an attorney with Texas Fair Defense Project who researches fines and fees in Travis County, suggested the county should better consider a defendant's ability to pay fines before they are levied.

"Absolutely people should be held accountable, if they commit an offense that was a public safety risk," she said. "And I think that we ... all agree that you just need to make sure that those [fines and fees] are equitable. Right now it is very expensive to be in the criminal justice system."

In her research of state court data, Gerrick said, historically, judges in Travis County reduced fines on Class C misdemeanors in only 1% of cases. Debt from those fine-only offenses can be paid by some defendants, but, if unpaid, can lead to arrest warrants or driver license suspensions.

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt pushed back on that point, clarifying that judges in Travis County regularly consider income in cases related to higher-level offenses. She suggested the county's "deeper dive" into court practices could consider alternatives to fines for Class C misdemeanors.

The Brennan Center study found 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. The study's authors argued that system disproportionately impacts low-income communities and people of color.

Outgoing Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said he understood the need to reduce fines for offenses that may not threaten public safety, citing his support of a diversion program for low-level marijuana cases.

But, he said, there should be consequences for offenses like driving with a suspended license and that merely taking fines off the table would address only "one side of the story."

Precinct 1 Commissioner Jeff Travillion said he respected that notion, but that the county's system should ultimately allow for equitable outcomes for both defendants of means and people accused of crimes who may not be able to pay.

"We can sit here and talk about equity in the criminal justice system until the cows come home," he said, "but we should be able to define and build some solutions for people who want to work through their issues."

Staff from the Travis County Justice Planning Department will meet with stakeholders and a county workgroup over the next few weeks before giving two presentations to commissioners at a later date – one on the structures of fines and fees in Travis County and another on possible reforms.