Debtor’s Prison Charges Leveled at Austin, Texas

Tuesday, November 03, 2015
Plaintiff Maria Salazar (photo: Texas Fair Defense Project)

The court system for Austin, Texas, is the latest to be sued for operating what amounts to debtor’s prisons, according to Buzzfeed.


Austin joins Benton County, Washington; Biloxi, Mississippi; and New Orleans, all of which have been targeted by civil rights lawsuits since September for sending offenders to prison for not paying fines. Previous investigations have shown similar situations elsewhere in Texas, including in El Paso.


The practice of jailing people for being unable to pay penalties was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court decades ago. In many states, judges can lock up debtors only after offering them the chance to perform community service and when the defendant has “failed to make a good-faith effort” to do so. That’s the case in Texas, where judges are supposed to use jail time only as a last resort for punishing low-income offenders.


But the lawsuit—Valerie Gonzales and Maria Salazar v. City of Austin—that was filed by the Texas Fair Defense Project says Austin judges often make no meaningful effort to find out how much defendants can pay and don’t consider how much money they make and how many family members depend on them, Alex Campbell reported for Buzzfeed.


“The best evidence of the court’s failure to consider alternatives to jail is its own data on debt waivers,” according to the suit. “The Austin Municipal Court’s self-reported data indicate that the court waived debt in just 11 of more than 600,000 cases between September 2011 and September 2015. During the same time period, on information and belief, the court jailed more than 2,000 people.”


Sometimes, judges make unreasonable community service demands on poor defendants.

A woman who was five months pregnant was ordered to perform 30 hours every month over the course of a year, Campbell found.


Other judges have sentenced poor offenders without first appointing them a lawyer, and violated their constitutional rights in the process.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Lawsuit Claims Austin Illegally Jails Poor People (by Alex Campbell, Buzzfeed)

Austin, Texas Targeted as a Debtors’ Prison (by Ryan Kocian, Courthouse News Service)

Valerie Gonzales and Maria Salazar v. City of Austin (U.S. District Court, Western District of Texas, Austin Division)

Debtors’ Prisons may be Illegal, but they still Exist in Texas and Washington (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov) 


Yolanda Summers 8 months ago
The courts can garnish the wages and or file a judgment against the person but they can only incarcerate the person if they can pay but they choose not to. The judge cannot incarcerate a person solely on behalf of their poverty. So it's not like the person isn't being punished. Judgements 'hurt people'. It's just that you can't jail them just because they are poor.
William Burke 11 months ago
I was under the impression that a jail term was the only recourse for people who refuse to pay their fines. What's the use of fining people if they're not legally obligated to pay them? Would it be better if we just skipped fines and sent everyone to jail? A FINE IS AN OPPORTUNITY TO AVOID JAIL!! Opting to not pay is opting for jail. Isn't this obvious to everyone?

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