Austin considers eliminating jail time for Class C misdemeanors

A man who is homeless near the UT campus (KXAN Photo)
A man who is homeless near the UT campus (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin City Council is considering a new resolution that will eliminate jail time — and replace it with community service — for indigent defendants who cannot pay their fines levied by city’s municipal court. While Council Member Delia Garza believes this will help people who can’t pay the fines for their Class C misdemeanor charge (which can be anything from violating city ordinances to traffic citations), critics fear the resolution might make it easier to allow offenders to not follow through with the punishment they are given.

“[It’s] making sure instead of confining them to jail because maybe they cant pay a fine, instead offering alternative means to fulfill the inability to do that,” Delia Garza, Austin Council Member for District 2 says.

The resolution asks the city manager and presiding judge to draft guidelines to determine how many hours of community service would potentially create an unnecessary hardship for defendants. The guidelines would factor in the person’s age, responsibility for dependents, physical impairment and weekly work volume.

“We need to be thinking hard about whether people who cant pay their fines should have to sit in jail to satisfy their debts, or whether they can get a workable alternative, like a fine that’s tailored to how much they can afford to pay so they can be held accountable without having their lives destroyed by having to go to jail,” Ranjana Natarajan, a clinical professor at the UT school of law says. She supports the resolution.

A group of University of Texas parents, who worry about the homeless problem around the university, believe the proposal would end up being too lax on the homeless individuals who are repeatedly receiving Class C misdemeanor citations. Without jail time, critics worry accountability will go out the window.

“We understand that not everyone can financially contribute and not even afford a payment plan, but then if community service is the alternative, then they should do the community service. ” Joell McNew, VP of Safehorns says. “If that community service, can’t be done either, then what does happen, where is the accountability for this crime? And then if this is let go, it’s their first offense, but then you see them back again, where does it end?”

Those for the proposal say they are trying to work with indigent offenders to see what the best options are. They say the goal is to make it “indisputably clear that the failure to pay is willful disobedience and not because paying the fine would cause an undue hardship on the defendant or the defendant’s dependents.”

Parents say their goal is to make sure the city will continue to hold all offenders accountable for their crimes, to keep public safety a priority for all students, including those who live near the UT campus.

“At the end of the day, safety is our number one priority for all Austinites as well as our students at the university and teachers and faculty,” McNew says.

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