By Matt Clarke

The Texas legislature has erected such a hodgepodge of criminal court fees that even the court administrators and clerks don’t know how to apply them. These fees, which are frequently not used for their intended purposes, amount to a hidden tax on the poorest members of society ensnared in Texas’ criminal justice system.

“Sometimes, I can’t even tell my client what the bill is for,” said Austin defense attorney David Gonzales.

He is not alone. The Texas Office of Court Administration (TOCA) receives “hundreds of calls from court officials about how to assess and prioritize fines, fees and surcharges in criminal cases,” according to a report the agency published in 2009. “The sprawling number of state and local fees and court costs that state law prescribes as a result of a criminal conviction amounts to a nearly incomprehensible package.”

The fee system is so complex that people convicted of identical crimes might be charged vastly different fees, possibly violating the constitutional guarantee of equal treatment under the law.

Nor is it always possible to determine how a particular fee is actually used; typical legislative practice includes the raiding of fee accounts to balance the budget or fund pet projects. Some fees, such as the $50 clerk’s fee and $25 prosecutor’s fee, go straight into a county’s general fund where they can be used to pay for any budget item, court-related or not.

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