Council Takes Action on Municipal Court Reform
City has 90 days to evaluate how it handles indigent defendants
Thanks to a swift discussion and nearly unanimous approval along the dais, City Council last week passed a resolution to help shore up the holes in the Austin Municipal Court that are sending indigent defendants to jail. The resolution, authored by Council Member Delia Garza and co-sponsored by four colleagues (Ann Kitchen, Leslie Pool, Pio Renteria, and Greg Casar), gives city management 90 days to draft a code amendment that will both define what it means to be indigent in the city of Austin and also make more clear that fine-only defendants can't be jailed for failing to pay unless a judge has determined they are not indigent.
The suggested standard to determine if a defendant is indigent in Austin is 200% above federal poverty guidelines, though judges will have discretion to determine if those who clear that threshold have incurred additional hardships and could therefore be considered indigent. City management, with Presiding Judge Sherry Statman, is also tasked to draft guidelines to determine how many hours of community service could impose an undue hardship on defendants, and to study nationwide best practices to better ensure that poor defendants are receiving legal assistance.
Federal and state laws dictate that fine-only offenders should not be sent to jail for failing to pay their fines, but current language in the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure stipulates two instances in which a fine-only defendant can be sentenced to jail time: 1) when the defendant is not indigent and has failed to make a good-faith effort to pay, or 2) when the defendant is indigent, has failed to make a good-faith effort to pay, and could have made a good-faith effort to do so without experiencing any undue hardships. Statman confirmed during Wednesday's hearing that the merits for indigency currently vary from judge to judge (see "Locked Up for Being Poor," Aug. 5).
The city of Austin committed at least 900 people to jail for failing to pay fines on Class C misdemeanor tickets during the 2015 calendar year, according to a letter sent to council members by advocates including the Texas Fair Defense Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, Texas Appleseed, the Equal Justice Center, and UT Law's Civil Rights Clinic. Many of those 900 should have been considered too poor to pay, the groups said, and those same defendants weren't appointed counsel at any stage during their criminal process.
Those same advocates remain hopeful that the resolution and city management's eventual amendments will bring an end to indigent jailing, though some have reserved judgment on the pending policy until the specific language goes before Council in 90 days. Emily Gerrick, a staff attorney with the Texas Fair Defense Project, called the resolution "a very large step in the right direction." She said she does not believe "any of our clients would have been jailed if these proposed guidelines have been followed."
One aspect of the current dilemma that will be interesting to see play out is the degree to which the Municipal Court changes the way it treats case management. Speaking at last week's council meeting, Statman called the court's management system "Jurassic," and questions remain as to whether the court even knows how many indigent people have been issued arrest warrants due to unpaid fines. The court has said that judges are working to determine indigency among defendants, but defense attorneys claim case records show no documentation to back that up. Garza's resolution, which calls for development of a system to track the number of defendants committed to jail along with the reason for and duration of the commitment, suggests judges aren't doing their part to maintain the most detailed records.
"It's a really important time to examine our court practices to examine if" people are going to jail simply because they cannot pay their fines, said Ranjana Natarajan, director of UT Law's Civil Rights Clinic. "If we look at that closely, we'll see that we're pouring an extreme amount of resources – police, court, and jail resources – into punishing people who are low-income, and never recovering the money for the city in the first place, which is what was intended. There are probably smarter and more effective ways of making people accountable, by working with them and understanding their circumstances."