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Council approves alternatives to jail time for indigent defendants

Friday, August 12, 2016 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

City Council members approved a measure Thursday clarifying the process to be used by municipal judges to deem a defendant incapable of paying a municipal fine – and emphasizing community service as an alternative to jail time for unpaid fines.

Council Member Delia Garza brought the item forward.

“I absolutely believe that our Austin judges are talented and caring and that they do a great job,” Garza said, clarifying that municipal fines are generally levied for Class C Misdemeanors, which includes things such as a parking ticket or building without a permit. “But it is important that we pass this resolution to institutionalize best practices to ensure that (the fines) are used consistently and that no one accidentally falls through the cracks.”

The ordinance includes setting a baseline for indigency at 200 percent of the federal poverty level (which equates to an income of roughly $23,000 per year for an individual). It asks the city manager and Austin’s presiding judge to come up with jail alternatives, including community-service hours, for those who cannot pay a fine. Although state law allows judges to assign up to 16 hours per week of community service as an alternative to jail time, the ordinance directs the city manager and presiding judge to devise guidelines to determine what amount of community service is appropriate.

State law requires municipal judges to take into account a person’s ability to pay before requiring that a fine be served with jail time. But Presiding Judge Sherry Statman said that room remains for interpretation.

“[They] know what they’re supposed to do,” she said. “Each judge has discretion, so how they do it may vary from judge to judge.”

Garza emphasized that under the new rules – which still need to be voted on once the city manager and presiding judge bring back specific language – a municipal judge will still maintain a certain power of discretion.

“Let’s say that person did not do their community service – nothing prevents that judge from taking other options at that point,” she said.

A report by the city auditor published in July found that between September 2014 and August 2015, 19,591 people served out their fines with jail time. The data do not specify how many of these people were jailed because they could not afford the fine.

A lawsuit filed by the Texas Fair Defense Project against the city of Austin in October alleged that the municipal court overlooks people’s rights and jails those unable to pay fines without assessing their ability to do so or considering alternatives to jail. A judge dismissed that case in March.

Council members passed the item Thursday with a near-unanimous vote of 10-0-1. Council Member Don Zimmerman abstained.

Photo: City Council Member Delia Garza explains the resolution in front of City Hall, with Council Member Greg Casar, one of the resolution’s co-sponsors, at left. Photo by Audrey McGlinchy/KUT. This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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