How fines create a cycle of debt and jail

Some people in Texas who commit relatively minor violations, such as driving on a suspended license, can find themselves caught in a legal system where they're further penalized for being unable to pay fines. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that it's illegal to put people in jail who are too poor to pay fines, many debt-ridden offenders feel like they are in a kind of prison.

This was the case for one man in Tennessee who was prohibited from driving until the age of 21 because of skipping school as a teenager. When he drove anyway, he got two tickets and accumulated around $1,000 of debt for unpaid fines and fees. He went to jail due to his inability to pay, and while on probation, had to pay an additional fee. The man then quit driving to avoid further legal and financial problems, but this had profound consequences on his ability to find work and housing and to see his children.

Some jurisdictions rely on these fees and fines to make up budget shortfalls. However, in some cases, the cost of prosecution and incarceration is greater than the revenue. While district attorneys and others in the legal system in some places try to avoid prosecuting people for these minor incidents, some states require overly onerous paperwork if a fine is not levied.

Charges of drunk driving or drug possession are generally more serious than driving on a suspended license, but they can still carry some of the same dangers of incurring hefty fees on top of jail sentences. Someone who is facing these types of charges may want to consult an attorney who could protect their rights. It may also possible to get the charges or penalty reduced or to plead not guilty and go to trial.

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