Austin judges can now waive jail time for unpaid traffic tickets

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Thursday, the Austin City Council unanimously approved new guidelines for municipal judges that will encourage them to keep people out of jail for unpaid traffic fines.

Supporters of the ordinance, which was sponsored by Council Member Delia Garza of District 2, say it would ensure judges follow state law and not jail someone just because they’re poor or homeless. It would allow a judge to waive payment of all or part of a fine if the defendant is homeless or does not have sufficient resources or income or if the cost would impose an “undue hardship.”

“Things that we value in the community are not jailing people because they can’t pay their fines,” Garza said.

KXAN asked her, could this encourage people to break traffic laws? She says violators still have to right the wrong, they just don’t have to go to jail.

“Because you couldn’t go to jail anyway for speeding. That’s not even on the table. It’s only if you couldn’t pay the fine to do that,” said Garza.

A judge now can determine if the defendant is indigent if the individual makes less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level (a single person making $23,760 a year or a family of four making $48,600) or if someone receives food stamps, Medicaid, lives in public housing or receives financial benefits from the local, state, or federal government.

Fines can also be waived if someone is serving time in a mental health institution, in a correctional facility, is in middle or high school or under the age of 17.

The ordinance also clarifies what is an “undue hardship” that would allow a judge to waive fines if someone has a disability, pregnant, has substantial family commitments, or transportation limits.

Municipal judges still will determine the specific outcomes of a case, but city council is now giving them more options to waive fines and keep people out of jail.

Staff attorney with the Fair Defense Project, Emily Gerrick, says starting now her clients will not be jailed just for being poor.

“This does not take a way judicial discretion but it does send a signal that Austin values equity and fairness,” said Gerrick.

It’s not just traffic fines. Between September 2014 and September 2015, more than 19,000 people paid part of their fines for misdemeanor crimes by serving time. For every day you spend behind bars, you get a $50 credit toward your fine.

But at the same time, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition says serving time costs taxpayers $59 a day on average statewide.

Last year the ACLU found just 0.5 percent percent of cases where fines or fees were adjusted for those who couldn’t afford them. But that number is low, since more than 14 percent of the city’s population lives in poverty. There were less than 2 percent of cases where people were allowed to do community service as payment.

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