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Texas Criminal Court Fees Are a Secret Tax on the Poor

The Texas Legislature has erected such a mishmash of criminal court fees that even the- court administrators and clerks don't know how to apply them. These fees, which are frequently not used for their intended purposes amount to a hidden general tax on the poorest members of society.

"Sometimes, I can't even tell my client what the bill is for," said Austin defense attorney David Gonzales.

Gonzales is not alone. The Texas Office of Court Administration (TOGA), a state agency, receives "hundreds of calls from court officials about how to assess and prioritize fines, fees and surcharges in criminal cases," according to a report the agency published in 2009. "The sprawling number of state and local fees and court costs that state law prescribes as a result of a criminal conviction amounts to a nearly incomprehensible package."

The fee system is so complex that people convicted of identical crimes might be charged vastly different fees, possible violating the constitutional guarantee to equal treatment under the law.

Nor is it always possible to determine what a particular fee is being, used for. Recent legislative practice includes the raiding of fee accounts to balance the budget or pay for pet projects. Some fees, such as the $50 clerk's fee and $25 prosecutor's fee go straight to the county's ,General fund where they can be used to pay for any budget item, court-related or not.

Every person convicted of a crime pays a "consolidate court costs" fee: $40 for a misdemeanor; $133 for a felony. All cases also are charged at least six additional fees with labels such as "records management," "clerk's fee," "county and district court technology fund fee," or "courthouse security fee."

Those arrested with a warrant are charged a 4,50 fee. These without a warrant, $5. Entering or leaving jail costs a $5 fee as well. The total can easily exceed $600. The bill for those placed on probation is much higher: $4,000 to $5,000 according to a 2009 TOGA survey.

The fees aren't necessarily fair. Persons convicted of sex crimes pay a 4250 "DNA testing fee" and an additional "DNA collection fee" regardless of whether DNA was collected or tested. Likewise, persons convicted of victimless crimes pay millions of dollars each year in "crime victim compensation" fees.

To make matters worse, "breath alcohol testing fees" don't necessarily go to pay for breath alcohol testing any more than DNA fees necessarily pay for DNA testing,. Texas judicial administrators estimate that, of every three dollars raised in fees, one of them will be spent for something outside the court system. For instance, court fees currently pay for rehabilitation of people with brain injuries and an obesity study of minority children in the Houston area. They also pay the salaries of game wardens. $2 million was taken from court fees to pay a private company to install web cameras along the border witn Mexico so that people could play as "virtual deputies" and report illegal border crossings.

Fees are also raided to balance the budget. In 2011, the legislature took $20 million to pay for state employee pensions and put $135 million from the Fugitive Apprehension fee account, intended to help apprehend parolees who abscond, into the state's general fund where it can be used for any purpose. Another, bizarre method of using fees to balance the budget on paper is to allow them to collect unused. That is why there are almost $5 billion in fees sitting in dedicated accounts unused. There the same fees can he used to appear to "balance" budgets over and over again.

"The budget is toe much based on diversion and deceptions," according to state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. "When people are told their money is going to be spent for something specific, a promise is made. If we collect this tax from you, we will spend it for this practice."

"If we're not going to use a fee for a particular purpose, we shouldn't collect it," said Jim Allison of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas.

The fees amount to an onerous burden on the people who are already among society's poorest--criminal defendants.

"We're trying to squeeze more money from people who have a hard time getting jobs because they have a criminal record, or have mental illness problems or substance abuse problems," according to Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Coalition.

For the poor who can't pay the fees up front, there is the additional burden of fees on fees. There is a $25 fee to set up a schedule by which to pay fees. It costs another $12 of "restitution installment fee" if you want to pay off court-ordered restitution over time and a $2 "transaction fee" each time a payment is made.

It is not as if the lawmakers are unaware of the absurdity of the current criminal fee system, they just don't want to butcher their cash cow. In 2009 and 2011, the Texas Judicial Council--the policy-making body for the state's courts--unsuccessfully urged the Legislature to simplify the costs and fees.

There is one positive precedent from a different type of fee. When, in 2011, the Legislature tried to empty the System Benefit Fund account, which was paid for by fees on utility bills and intended to help the elderly and poor pay for their utility bills during the summer, Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, raised the issue publicly and the backlash stopped the attempt. Unfortunately, people who have been convicted of crimes find much less sympathy in the pubic eyes, so the increases in and raids on criminal court fees will doubtlessly continue into the future.

Source: Austin American-Statesman

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