Why I Refuse To Send People To Jail For Failure To Pay Fines
By Ed Spillane
Many judges continue to jail defendants who don’t have the money. Here are the alternatives.
Ed Spillane is the presiding judge of the College Station Municipal Court and president of the Texas Municipal Courts Association.
Melissa J. showed up in my court last year with four kids in tow. Her children quietly watched from a nearby table while I spoke with her. The charges against her — driving with an invalid license, driving without insurance, not wearing a seat belt, failure to use a child safety seat properly and four failures to appear — were nothing unusual for municipal court. Nor were her fines of several thousand dollars. But for Melissa, who had a low-paying job and a husband in prison, and who looked like she hadn’t slept in days, that number might as well have been several million.
As a municipal judge in College Station, Tex., I see 10 to 12 defendants each day who were arrested on fine-only charges: things like public intoxication, shoplifting, disorderly conduct and traffic offenses. Many of these people, like Melissa, have no money to pay their fines, let alone hire a lawyer.
What to do with these cases? In Tate v. Short , a 1971 Supreme Court decision, the justices held that jail time is not a proper punishment for fine-only criminal cases, citing the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. But in many jurisdictions, municipal judges — whether they’re overworked, under pressure to generate revenue through fees, skeptical of defendants’ claims to poverty or simply ignorant of the law — are not following the rules. As a result, far too many indigent defendants are cited for contempt of court and land behind bars for inability to pay.
There’s another way, and I’ve been experimenting with it in my own courtroom.
There are no firm numbers nationally on how many fine-only cases end with the defendants in jail, but figures from particular jurisdictions around the country are grim, if partial. A 2014 survey by NPR, New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice and the National Center for State Courts showed that in Benton County, Wash., a quarter of people in jail for misdemeanors on a typical day were there for nonpayment of fines and court fees. (The study also found that civil and criminal fees and fines had increased in 48 states since 2010.) The percentage of jail bookings in Tulsa involving inmates who had failed to pay court fines and fees more than tripled, from 8 to 29 percent of 1,200 inmates, between 2004 and 2013, according to reporting by the Tulsa World. Eighteen percent of all defendants sent to jail in Rhode Island between 2005 and 2007 were incarcerated because of court debt; in 2005 and 2006, that amounted to 24 people per day.
Enough people in Ohio were being locked up for failure to pay fines that, in 2014, the state’s chief justice issued a warning to all judges to stop jailing indigent defendants. In March, the U.S. Justice Department released a letter stressing that courts should not incarcerate defendants for nonpayment and that alternatives must be considered. “In addition to being unlawful,” the letter read, the practice “can cast doubt on the impartiality of the tribunal and erode trust between local governments and their constituents.”