justice-money CC MonamTexas judge is giving poor people in his court a chance to get ahead instead of facing a fate of either jail time or inescapable debt.

Municipal Judge Ed Spillane refuses to send people to jail simply because they can’t afford to pay fines or court fees. Instead, he’s looking for creative alternatives and urging his fellow judges to do the same.

For homeless people and others living on the the edge of poverty, a simple traffic ticket can spell months or years of financial disaster.

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Judge Spillane cites a woman in Missouri who was unable to pay a pair of parking tickets in 2007. Even though her original fine was only about $150, she couldn’t scrape together the money to pay it all at once.

Having to return to court time after time to make payments – with added fees each time – means she’s paid $550 in court costs over the last eight years and still owes another $500.

Spillane is critical of court systems that fuel a cycle of poverty. He’s using his post as President of the Texas Municipal Courts Association to urge other judges in the state to change the way they deal with poor defendants, and to use community service – a far better alternative for defendants living on the fringes of economic security.

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“In my experience,” Spillane wrote in a Washington Post Op-Ed, “It boosts defendants’ self-esteem and provides valuable assistance to organizations that need the help.”

Other courts around the country are starting to take the same approach. County officials in Sonoma, California, for instance, have launched a special court system just for homeless defendants.

When a formerly homeless man came before Commissioner Anthony Wheeldin recently, the judge learned the defendant had only recently gotten into temporary housing. The man, Roy Burress, couldn’t pay a $500 traffic fine, and in another court, he could have lost his license and any chance of holding a job.

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The court couldn’t collect the money, but Wheeldin prevented Burress from going to jail. He ordered him to spend 25 hours doing community service to pay off the bill, a win-win for the county.

“I’ve never been in a courtroom where they have so much compassion for you,” Burress told the Press Democrat. “It’s pretty amazing.”

(WATCH the video below from CBS Evening News) — Photo: Monam, CC

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