“It’s like when you go to the hospital and get the bill, and it’s like, ‘What is all this?’” Canales said. “There are all kinds of fees that the average citizen doesn’t see them so much; he doesn’t even know that they’re around.”
The second issue was that some dues are used to finance programs unrelated to the courts. In fiscal year 2013, for example, court fees generated over $408 million for the state, but only about half went to the judiciary. Funds in the remaining half didn’t necessarily go to law enforcement or other criminal-justice-related programs either. Adding salt to the wound, city and county courts, which are primarily funded by local tax revenue, remain underfunded because of the way revenue is distributed.
To fix these issues, “the goal would be to simplify it down to as few [fines and fees] as possible,” Slayton said. “And then make sure that whatever filing fees and court costs are being collected are allocated to purposes related to the administration of that case.”
But that still may not be enough. The state of Texas has legislated itself into a situation where divestment from court-collected funds would require officials to conjure up significant alternative sources of money—not an easy task for lawmakers in a notoriously tax-averse state. Slayton acknowledged that obstacle: “I think the issue has been finding sources of revenue to fund these other programs.”
Texas is certainly not alone in its conundrum. A 2014 NPR investigation traced the roots of rising court fees to the tough-on-crime era that began in the 1970s. The increased number of prosecutions escalated the cost of running courts. States began to compensate by charging defendants, a practice that expanded over the ensuing decades and was accelerated by tightened state budgets. The NPR report found that between the 2008 financial crisis and 2014, 48 states increased criminal- and civil-court fees.
Recently, some reformists in Texas have had success using the courts, not the legislature, to get these levies expunged. In March, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found that part of one fee constituted an unconstitutional tax. The case, Salinas v. State, centered on a penalty charged to every criminal offender in the state; it costs between $40 and $133, depending on the severity of the crime. Ten percent of the money collected funds local court operations, while the other 90 percent was originally divided between 14 state programs.
The court found that the state shouldn’t have funneled revenue to two of them: a rehabilitation program for people with traumatic brain or spinal-cord injury, and a fund titled “Abused Children’s Counseling,” which for 10 years had been redirected to the state’s general-revenue coffers. Because these recipients were unrelated to the criminal-justice system, the money used to fund them constituted a tax unlawfully imposed by the judiciary, the presiding judge on the case, Sharon Keller, wrote in her opinion:
Because the constitutional infirmity in this case is the statute’s failure to direct the funds to be used in a manner that would make it a court cost (i.e., for something that is a criminal justice purpose), the fee operates unconstitutionally every time the fee is collected, making the statute unconstitutional on its face.
Following the ruling, the legislature quickly redirected the two programs’ revenues to indigent defense, and funneled money from the state’s general fund to keep the rehabilitation initiative going.