Levi Lane was ordered to jail for 21 days in El Paso, Tx., because he couldn’t afford $3,400 in traffic penalties. What happened to Lane is illegal, reports BuzzFeed. 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. In many courts across the Lone Star State, it is as if the law and the high court rulings never happened. With no public defenders present, traffic court judges routinely flout the law, locking up people for days, weeks, and sometimes months because they did not pay fines they could not afford. The result is a modern-day version of debtors prison, an institution that was common two centuries ago but has been outlawed since the early '70s.
Before ordering defendants to jail, a Texas judge is supposed to 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. In El Paso, where 1 in 5 people live below the poverty line, municipal court judges regularly send people to jail without holding a poverty hearing or offering community service. 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 Cheryl 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.