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Commentary: Abbott can help officers while also ending debtors’ prisons

As a retired Texas district judge who still holds court by special assignment and a current municipal court judge, we support Senate Bill 1913, a bill that recently passed the Texas Legislature and is awaiting Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature.

SB 1913 will give Texas judges the necessary tools to ensure that all people are held accountable when they owe fines and fees related to a criminal sentence. Currently, many defendants end up in jail just because they cannot pay their fines and fees. This is counterproductive because it undermines the defendants’ accountability — and it costs cities and counties money.

SB 1913 provides a wider range of community service options, making it more likely that defendants will be able to work off their fines and fees. This builds the person’s work ethic and provides valuable help to community organizations. It also provides judges with the flexibility to tailor the sentence to the person in their court.

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In Texas, fewer than 2 percent of all cases in municipal and justice courts are currently resolved with community service. One in every eight cases is resolved at least partly with jail credit. It is better for communities if people to have more access to community service and avoid going to jail just because they cannot afford to pay a ticket.

SB 1913 will also ensure that in circumstances where it’s appropriate, judges no longer should wait for a defendant to default on debt before considering whether to waive some or all of what is owed.

Texas has a well-earned reputation for being tough on crime — but that doesn’t mean we should be putting people in jail because they simply don’t have the money to pay their court bill. We need to be tough and fair. SB 1913 doesn’t mean giving anyone a hand out; it means tailoring sentences and allowing people who can’t pay their bills to work it off in another way.

SB 1913 will also save Texas cities and counties money. When someone is put in jail for nonpayment of a fine or fee, we all end up footing the bill. This legislation will make it less likely that people go to jail for failing to pay and more likely that they will comply with their sentences. If judges can work with people on plans that make sense for their individual circumstances, they won’t end up in jail — and taxpayers won’t need to be charged for their unnecessary jail costs.

SB 1913 will also decrease the amount of time and energy that peace officers spend tracking down people for unpaid traffic tickets by reducing the number of warrants for unpaid tickets. Currently, 95 percent of the warrants issued in Texas come from fine-only cases, most of which stem from traffic tickets.

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SB 1913 will give people who miss court or fail to pay a chance to come to court and get back on track before a warrant is issued. It will also encourage people who already have warrants to come to court without fear of arrest in order to take care of their tickets.

By helping people take care of their tickets and avoid warrants, SB 1913 will allow peace officers to preserve their resources for preventing and solving serious crimes.

As judges, we have learned that different people need and deserve tailored sentences to address their unique circumstances. Delivering justice fairly means recognizing that people who come into the court without economic resources cannot be expected to magically come up with money to pay court costs and fines.

SB 1913 is about accountability and common sense. It recognizes that we have limited law enforcement and jail resources that should be dedicated to serious public safety priorities.

For all these reasons, we urge Abbott to sign SB 1913.

Delaney was a Texas district court judge for 33 years. Spillane is the municipal court judge of College Station.

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