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Texas will stop putting the poor in prison for unpaid fines

Debtor prisons are supposed to be a thing of the past, but they've become a state-sanctioned reality once again in many jurisdictions — including Texas.

People who are too poor to pay the court fines that have been levied against them or the fees they have incurred over minor legal infractions are finding themselves tossed in jail as a result.

In Texas, roughly 95 percent of the warrants issued by the state were due to unpaid fines. The state ended up jailing around 640,000 defendants just for unpaid fines over things as simple as allowing a dog off a leash in public or making a rolling stop in traffic.

The warrants and punishments affect the poor in vastly greater numbers than any other demographic. For some people, paying a ticket means not having grocery money or rent.

As of September 1, 2017, a new law takes effect that will require judges to offer poverty-stricken defendants a chance to work off their fines or fees through community service. If a judge believes that the fine would be an unfair hardship, the law also allows judicial leeway to extend to the defendant a partial or complete waiver of the debt.

While this will help change the state's image as being heavy-handed when it comes to putting people in prison for minor infractions, it creates another problem — lack of revenue. Texas, like many other states, has grown to rely on the small fees that defendants struggle to pay, including late-payment penalties and fees for establishing a payment plan. The new law still doesn't eliminate these small fees for those who don't qualify for relief.

If you have an outstanding warrant due to your inability to pay fees or fines for a low-level offense, talk to a criminal defense attorney today to see if the new law can help you or if other arrangements can be made to resolve your issue.

Source: The Atlantic, "Why Texas Courts Will Stop "Nickel-and-Diming" the Poor," Maura Ewing, July 28, 2017

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