Open dockets make getting on right track easier for working poor

By the Advocate Editorial Board
Jan. 3, 2018 at 6:36 p.m.

A new program introduced by the Victoria Municipal Court has provided defendants with more options when it comes to paying off debt accumulated by previous fines.

In lieu of paying the debt all at once, the court has allowed defendants to use community service hours or reduced payment plans instead through this new open docket program.

"The idea is that not only are we helping them find creative solutions to paying fines, they will also no longer have to pay that warrant fee either," said Vanessa Heinold, Victoria Municipal Court Judge. "There has been an increase in overall community service hours that are being turned in, and people are relieved that there are options outside of just paying because it's been an extremely tight year for folks because of Hurricane Harvey."

Heinold helped usher in the program at the end of August 2017.

Before, when someone was not able to pay, they would basically go into warrant status, which means there would be a warrant out for their arrest. If they were pulled over for a traffic violation or arrived late to pick up their child from daycare, they could be sent to jail.

"We don't want to put people in jail because they are poor," Heinold said. "We've got to come up with more creative solutions in all courts, not just municipal courts."

After an article printed in the Victoria Advocate in early December, Heinold said she received a letter from the Supreme Court of Texas Chief Justice thanking Heinold and other judges doing similar work in their counties.

"You are models for judges across the country," Heinold read from the letter.

The Victoria Advocate Editorial Board applauds this kind of sensible, constructive approach to justice that's removed from the cash register and more aligned with meeting our community's needs.

People should be going to work and contributing to our sales tax revenue instead of spending their time in a jail cell.

"There are other ways people can contribute, whether that's through community service or getting additional schooling or job training," Heinold said. "I'm really proud of the program and the folks that come in and take advantage of the program."

Since the program began in August, there have been at least 10 warrants recalled each month, Heinold said.

People can now take care of their court fines and get rid of those warrants without having to live in fear while driving to work or to the grocery store.

The court started a Facebook page to help spread the news about when the monthly open dockets are scheduled.

Heinold, 40, moved to Victoria after living in Houston with her husband, who is a Goliad native.

She was appointed by the Victoria City Council on Nov. 1, 2016.

"I just thought that there may be some things that I could change," Heinold said. "I like to look at different ways to solve problems."

This opinion reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.



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