For best outcomes, shift focus of justice system away from debt collection

Nov 11, 2018

More jurisdictions are recognizing that, when it comes to using the justice system for debt collection instead of, well, justice, the juice isn't worth the squeeze.

After a state Supreme Court Committee criticized New Jersey's municipal courts for serving as an ATM for local governments, the court issued an order which could lead to dismissal of 800,000 old warrants statewide, ceasing enforcement on warrants more than 15 years old.

Texas, it should be noted, has this same problem: Traffic ticket warrants remain active for decades, and people many not even know they still owe money. In Austin, the County Attorney made headlines by having people arrested to collect debt from traffic tickets from the 1980s!

Such examples of overreach have led to a bipartisan backlash: At their state conventions in June, both the Republican Party of Texas and the Texas Democratic Party included provisions in their platforms calling for an end to jailing drivers for non-payment of traffic tickets and other Class C misdemeanor debt, switching to commercial collections methods, instead. So maybe we'll see some movement on that front here.

Meanwhile, in California, Los Angeles County is eliminating $90 million worth of debt owed by families of juvenile defendants who were charged for their own incarceration. Declared an LA County Supervisor (the equivalent of a county commissioner in Texas), “It is simply not worth the cost and effort to the county — and more importantly, not worth the cost to families — to continue with these collection payments.”

Grits isn't sure if there's a juvenile analog to this policy in Texas, but some counties charge indigent adult defendants for their attorneys fees and even incarceration costs, creating the same conundrum for indigent probationers.

Among the reasons the Board of Supervisors took this action:

Research shows that juvenile detention fees impose financial hardships and strain on low-income families and weigh disproportionately on black and Latino youth who are overrepresented in the criminal justice system and are often sentenced to longer terms than white youth. ... 
Research also suggests the fees may increase recidivism. A study of more than 1,000 youth in Pennsylvania found that the total amount of fines, fees and/or restitution significantly increased the likelihood of recidivism within two years, even after controlling for demographics and case characteristics. 
“The two main purposes of the juvenile justice system are to rehabilitate kids and to protect public safety, and it turns out these fees undermine both of those,” said [law professor Jeffrey] Selbin of UC Berkeley.

Grits recently highlighted a new study showing that, when police departments focus on revenue generation through traffic tickets, their skewed priorities result in lower clearance rates for other crimes. It seems likely that the same is true for probation departments: That focusing on fee collection reduces the likelihood that their charges will succeed on probation. The recidivism data cited above from Pennsylvania certainly seems to support that supposition.

FWIW, it's not at all clear that these moves to erase criminal-justice debt will result in less revenue. Debt collection in Texas has remained relatively steady in recent years, even as the number of traffic tickets and warrants issued has plummeted.

Indeed, when Texas reformed Class C sentencing in 2017 to let judges waive fines and sentence people to community service more readily, collections actually improved. IMO that's because local officials weren't spending so much time spinning their wheels pretending to collect un-collectable debt, so could focus on other aspects of their jobs.

The project of shifting the justice system's priorities from debt collection to public safety - which in many ways began with the Justice Department's report on abusive policies around traffic ticket/municipal-court debt in Ferguson, MO - inevitably will be slow and arduous because it involves so many different institutions and decision makers.

But it's beginning to happen, bit by bit, and every time it does, the "sky is falling" predictions of the debt collectors are discredited and public-safety outcomes improve.

Posted by: Pat Monks