Debtors' Prisons

The concept of a debtors' prison encompasses any prison, jail, or other detention facility in which people are incarcerated for their inability or failure to pay debt.  In Texas, tens of thousands of people are being sent to jail each year for failure to pay tickets, fines and court fees arising from criminal cases. While it is unconstitutional to confine a person for nonpayment of such criminal justice debt when the person’s failure to pay is related to indigence, courts routinely fail to inquire into defendants’ ability to pay or to offer them alternatives. Recently, the U.S. Department of Justice investigation of the Ferguson Police Department also has raised concerns about whether fines and fees have become a means for local and state agencies to balance their budgets, particularly since these fines and fees disproportionately fall on the economically and socially disadvantaged members of our communities. Texas Appleseed is focused on analyzing the extent of these problems statewide, with an eye toward ensuring enforcement of the state and federal constitutional guarantee that no Texan who is unable to pay a debt — whether it arises from contact with the criminal justice system or a private loan — is arrested or jailed simply because they are unable to pay.

Highlights

  • Letter to the El Paso City Council -  After Buzzfeed published results of an investigation into Texas municipal courts that heavily featured El Paso, including numerous quotes from judges there, Texas Appleseed urged the City Council to work with the Municipal Court there to develop and adopt a new set of policies on collection of court fines and fees.  
  • Know Your Rights Resource - Texas Appleseed has collaborated with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid (TRLA) to publish a resource for those facing potential jail time for traffic tickets & low level violations.