ACLU Suit Aims to Stop Debtors' Prison in Texas Town

Group says Santa Fe tosses misdemeanor violators in jail if they can't pay-and starves them, too.


Prison cell
Raja Rc / Dreamstime.com

The tiny town of Santa Fe, Texas (population 12,000), found not far south of Houston, has a big problem with using low-level misdemeanor citations to pad its revenue and threatening low-income citizens with jail time unless they cough up some money.

It's a debtors' prison shake-down, according to the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and they've just filed a class-action lawsuit to try to stop it.

The lawsuit, representing three men so far, alleges that Santa Fe jails people for normally non-jailable offenses (like traffic violations) unless they shell out money for fines without any sort of consideration of whether these people are able to pay them. The system is designed to keep the accused from getting counsel if they can't afford it and pushes those caught up in it to plead "no contest" in order to be permitted on a monthly payment plan that would allow them to avoid jail. The ACLU claims in the suit it's all about the money and the city knows it:

The Municipal Judge allows budgetary considerations to color his judgment about whether to dismiss cases. The judge recently identified dozens of cases in which the prosecutor could not prove the charges against the accused. The judge nevertheless declined to dismiss those charges, because of the negative impact on overall fines owed to the City. If a person is arrested under an open warrant in one of these cases, it is likely that the court will accept her no contest plea and entered a conviction against her—despite the judge's knowing that the prosecutor would be unable to prove his case.

Santa Fe actually jacked up fines last year in order to help deal with a $600,000 budget shortfall. The lawsuit notes that the city participates in a Texas "warrant round-up" to wring fines out of citizens timed to coincide when residents are getting their annual tax refunds.

And there's more. Santa Fe, after tossing people charged with low-level misdemeanors into jail cells for days, is starving them, the ACLU contends. If you end up in Santa Fe's jail, your breakfast is one single Pop Tart. Your lunch is the second Pop Tart from that package. Your dinner is a microwaved Hungry Man meal:

The City of Santa Fe's projected spending on jail supplies, for the most recent year for which that statistic is available, was $1500.00 per year. Even if the entirety of this budget went toward food, Santa Fe limited the total spending on food for all people in the Chief's custody to just $4.11 per day. This is only slightly more than the City's projected spending on supplies for dogs in the Police Department's canine unit, which was $3.84 per day.

They also calculated out the caloric intake of such a feeding schedule. It worked out to 720 calories, which is even less than the amount of food a 1-year-old child is supposed to eat daily (The ACLU even provides handy charts in the lawsuit). That's assuming people get fed anything at all. Apparently the record-keeping in all this is so bad that several people say they sometimes didn't even get their "meals."

Santa Fe is the latest in a new push for legal action against municipalities. The need for a new wave of action got massive amounts of publicity from the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, over the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown. Lest folks forget, the anger wasn't just over whether police were justified in shooting Brown, but over the larger issue of small St. Louis County municipalities using fines and citations to drain money from residents to pay bankroll themselves and line their pockets. These were typically poor minorities who did not have the resources to resist, and municipal judges and governments took advantage of that reality.

The lawsuit notes that efforts to stop behavior like what we see in Santa Fe have cropped up in nine other states and in other Texas cities. Brian Doherty previously wrote about a lawsuit in Arkansas to stop similar tactics. The Institute for Justice is going after a St. Louis suburb for trying to use loads of absurd city codes (like having mismatched curtains) to try to extract money from citizens.

Read the ACLU's lawsuit here, and drive very carefully if you find yourself in Santa Fe, Texas.