Here’s a story on Buzzfeed, which prominently features El Paso:
Levi Lane shuffled into the pews of the El Paso County jail court still reeking of poultry fat from his night shift at a local pet food factory. Driving home at 2 in the morning, he had been pulled over for going 43 miles an hour when the limit was 35 and arrested on the spot for outstanding traffic tickets.
There in court, Judge Cheryl Davis, a part-time judge and bankruptcy lawyer, called Lane’s name. Barely looking up at him, Lane recalled, she read off his driving offenses, which included expired registration, no insurance, and not stopping at a stop sign — five traffic stops, totaling more than $3,400 in penalties.
If Lane paid up, he would have been released immediately. But there was no way Lane could afford that sum. The pet food factory paid $8 an hour, more than any other job he had had, but even so he made only $5,650 that year. Judge Davis did not ask about his financial situation, Lane said. Less than two minutes after the hearing began, it ended. In lieu of payment, Lane, who had no legal representation, was ordered to spend 21 days in jail.
Well, nobody should be surprised by that, right? That’s how we roll here. Pay your fine or go to jail.
What happened to Lane is illegal. It violates Texas law and two unanimous Supreme Court decisions, all of which bar courts from jailing people simply because they are too poor to pay their fines. One of the Supreme Court decisions even stemmed from a traffic case in Texas.
. . . Texas law leaves no doubt as to how courts must handle someone who has been arrested for unpaid fines. And it provides an unambiguous, step-by-step process that includes an alternative punishment for those too poor to pay their fines.
First, before ordering a defendant to jail, a judge must hold a hearing to assess their finances. If the defendant is too poor to pay, the judge must offer community service instead. An indigent person can only be jailed if they have “failed to make a good faith effort” to do the community service. The result of the hearing must be put in writing.
All this is clearly laid out in Texas statutes — as well as in an official instruction manual for judges — and many of the state’s more than 2,100 judges who handle traffic violations and other petty offenses do follow the law.
But many don’t. In El Paso, where 1 in 5 people live below the poverty line, judges at the municipal court regularly send people to jail without holding a poverty hearing or offering community service. BuzzFeed News reviewed 100 of the court’s case files for people jailed for at least five days last year. Not a single one indicated that the judge had considered — or even inquired about — the defendant’s ability to pay before locking them up.
Are the judges simply disregarding the law? Or is it something else?
In defense of locking people up without assessing their ability to pay — or without offering community service — many judges demonstrate outright ignorance of the law. “There’s no requirement for us to ask” defendants if they have the money to pay, said Judge Davis, who sentenced Lane. “Unless they bring up the fact that they have no money to pay, or that they would rather go on to a payment plan, or they want to do community service, then it’s not offered,” she said. Cindy Ruthart, a judge in Lamar County in eastern Texas, echoed her, saying, “I’m not required by law to ask anything” about indigency. In rural Hereford, near the New Mexico border, Jennifer Eggen said that in her nine years as judge, she has never given anyone an alternative to incarceration other than paying up. When told that the law requires her to do so, she disagreed and said, “That’s up to them to request that.”
El Paso city court Presiding Judge Daniel Robledo also said that judges were under no obligation to ask people about their finances — the onus was on defendants to raise the issue. He said that if someone acts responsibly and shows up to court, he’s more understanding, conducting indigency hearings and offering payment plans. In rare circumstances, judges offer community service. But once a person misses a court date, Robledo said, he and the 18 judges he oversees aren’t required to provide any alternatives.
When informed that Texas law says the opposite — that judges consider and document indigency for every defendant facing jail for unpaid fines — Robledo replied, “That’s a good point. That’s a good point. That’s a very good point.”
I know that the County’s busy mucking up our hospital situation, but isn’t the County Commissioners Court supposed to oversee the judges? Aren’t laws supposed to protect the citizens, besides empowering the man to put his jackbooted foot down?
El Paso’s governments are not only financially poor, they’re morally bankrupt.