AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Ernesto Cardoza has gone to jail three times because he couldn't afford to pay his traffic tickets, and it cost him dearly.
"I lost everything — my girlfriend left with my kids, and when I came out I had to start over," the 34-year-old Dallas crane operator said of his first stint — 30 days in 2005 for failing to pay speeding tickets.
Texas locks up more people who can't afford to pay tickets and fines than any other state, but that could change if Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signs off on bipartisan bills that would require judges to offer alternatives such as community service, payment plans or waivers.
Ninety-five percent of warrants issued in Texas last year were for fine-related offenses, and more than 640,000 people spent at least one night in jail, according to the Texas Judicial Council, which sets policy for the state's judicial branch. At an average of $60 per night per inmate, it cost counties significant money to jail offenders rather than find cheaper — or even profitable — alternatives.
"This is easily the most significant reform to Texas's municipal courts in a decade," said Trisha Trigilio, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. "Under the bills, people who can't afford to make a payment would be guaranteed the opportunity to be heard before they're put in handcuffs."
The U.S. Supreme Court in the 1970s outlawed so-called debtor's prisons, finding it unconstitutional to jail people for not being able to pay fines. Several states, including Colorado, Washington, Georgia, and New Hampshire, recently have passed legislation meant to reinforce that ban, but more than a dozen states, including Texas, still effectively detain people for not paying what they owe.
Texas judges can already opt for an alternative to jail for people who can't pay their tickets and fines, but they rarely do so, allowing community service in just 8 percent of cases last year and waiving the fines in half that amount, according to the judicial council. Under the current legislation — the state Senate and state House passed similar measures — judges would be required to ask in court about a person's ability to pay a ticket and to present alternatives to those who can't.
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Democrat from Laredo who authored her chamber's version of the bill, said it was "of extreme importance for low-income people" that the changes become law.
"If a person can't pay, it spirals from a low-level to high-level problem," said Zaffirini, noting that people often lose their jobs during such jail stints.
The judicial council's executive director, David Slayton, also supports the proposed changes, which he said would encourage people to pay their tickets in installments or perform community service. Most people who don't pay their tickets also don't appear for their court dates, but the legislation would require judges to send notices that offer alternatives to paying in full and that serve as warnings before an arrest warrant is issued.
"Our belief is that people don't go to court because they think they'll automatically get jail time if they can't pay," said Slayton.
Marc Levin, who heads the Center for Effective Justice and Right on Crime for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Austin, said the changes would save taxpayers the expense of jailing so many people.
"This is consistent with our views of personal responsibility and limited government," said Levin.
But Republican state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who voted against the measure, said it did not adequately consider "personal responsibility" and that it provided too much leeway for judges to completely waive fines.
"Current law already allows a court to work with indigent defendants who are truly unable to pay court imposed fines," said Bettencourt, a Houston Republican.
Abbott has until June 18 to sign or veto the bills, or he can do nothing and automatically allow them to become law.
Phil Telfeyan, who heads the Equal Justice Center, cautioned that even if the Texas bills become law, they may not be enough because he's seen judges throughout the country fail to honor such statutes.
"The Supreme Court has spoken clearly, but ultimately it's a question of compliance around the country," he said. "Ultimately it's up to the judges."
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