Judge on Fining Indigent Defendants: ‘There’s Another Way’

ShowImageWith one eye on the experience of Ferguson, Missouri, a Texas judge offers a first-person view titled “Why I refuse to send people to jail for failure to pay fines.”

Judge Ed Spillane, presiding judge of the College Station Municipal Court and president of the Texas Municipal Courts Association, sums up the issue this way in a Washington Post commentary:

“In Tate v. Short , a 1971 Supreme Court decision, the justices held that jail time is not a proper punishment for fine-only criminal cases, citing the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. But in many jurisdictions, municipal judges — whether they’re overworked, under pressure to generate revenue through fees, skeptical of defendants’ claims to poverty or simply ignorant of the law — are not following the rules. As a result, far too many indigent defendants are cited for contempt of court and land behind bars for inability to pay. There’s another way, and I’ve been experimenting with it in my own courtroom.”

Spillane engages in what he calls alternative sentencing, and among examples he cites are community service, a small payment plan combined with education, anger-management training, drunk-driving impact panels, teen court and even judicial mercy.

Spillane’s detailed piece includes data from two Justice at Stake partner organizations, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Center for State Courts. A Justice Department report critical of the Municipal Court in Ferguson (see Gavel Grab) said, “The Municipal Court does not act as a neutral arbiter of the law or a check on unlawful police conduct. Instead, the court primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the city’s financial interests.”