Jail for Nonjailable Violations

When a violation is minor and subject to only a fine, why are we booking thousands into jail?

The maximum punishment for a Class C misdemeanor is only a fine, not jail. The vast majority of Class C tickets are traffic tickets, citations for city ordinance violations and some very minor criminal violations like not having enough money to pay a cab driver.

Class C public intoxication violations are excluded from the “no arrest” proposal because an intoxicated person might present a public safety risk.

Every time a Texan ends up in jail for an infraction that can only be punished by issuing a fine, they’ve already been punished more for their sins than the law technically allows.

It’s time to adjust police and court practices so that they’re better aligned with the intent of the law. When the maximum punishment for an offense is a fine, Texans shouldn’t go to jail for it.

This is not a small problem. Around half a million Texans in 2017 sat out their Class C fines in jail because they could not pay. Most of this jail time related to unpaid traffic tickets.

Many of these people were caught up in “warrant roundups,” which have devolved into debt-collection schemes in which police go around to people’s homes with credit-card swipers threatening to arrest them if they do not pay.

Instead of jail, cities should rely on more standard, commercial debt collection practices. We don’t allow Visa or the cable company to use police and jails to collect bad debt, so why do we let city government do it. Government debt is not sacred.

In 2018, both major Texas political parties endorsed important reforms to how law enforcement handles Class C misdemeanor offenses, which are punished with a fine-only, not jail time. Both parties endorsed:
• Eliminating most arrests for Class C misdemeanors, including traffic offenses, and
• An end to jailing drivers who can’t afford to pay tickets, using commercial collections methods instead.

Research shows that police departments that focus on revenue collection do a worse job at solving other, more serious crimes. As the researchers wrote in the Washington Post:
Higher revenue from fees and fines meant fewer violent crimes solved. Cities with smaller departments and fewer resources are less likely to have specialized investigators, so when patrol officers are collecting revenue, they’re not investigating more serious crimes.

Eliminating roadside arrests for Class C misdemeanors — another misuse of limited police resources — would affect situations like that of Sandra Bland, who was famously pulled over, and initially arrested, for failure to signal a lane change. If the state trooper in that case were not empowered to arrest her for such a petty offense, she would likely still be alive today.

Many more of these arrests occur than most people realize. The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition analyzed 16 weeks of arrest data in Harris County from 2016 and determined that arrests for Class C misdemeanors made up 11 percent of all arrests countywide. In Travis County, Class C misdemeanor arrests were similarly common, and after evaluating the data the City of Austin recently moved to change police policy to start reducing those numbers.

Texans want all this to stop. The Texas Office of Court Administration, which is the administrative agency for the Texas judiciary, polled Texans and discovered that 66 percent don’t think drivers should be arrested when they can’t pay traffic-ticket debt.

The “no arrest” policy enacted into law would eliminate hundreds of thousands of unnecessary arrests, boosting freedom, saving taxpayer money on jail costs and keeping police officers out on the street to deal with more important matters.