Shut down the biggest driver of Texas debtor prison policies!
Texas’ Driver Responsibility Program was touted at its 2003 inception as improving public safety by slapping drivers with surcharges for certain traffic offenses. It would cause them to drive more safely and responsibly, said the pols. It would reduce reckless and unlawful driving and make the roads safer for everyone. It was hailed as a means to cutback the state’s $10 billion shortfall and to fund Texas trauma hospitals. Yet, despite its noble intentions, the Driver Responsibility Program never worked properly from the beginning and causes more problems than it solves.
As Judge David Hodges, an expert who trains Texas judges on the DRP, said before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee: “These surcharges are not changing behavior, not being collected, and are creating a new class of criminals each day by adding to the 1.2 million unlicensed and uninsured drivers in the state.”
The shortcomings of the Driver Responsibility Program are plentiful. The DRP effectively:
overwhelms individuals with insurmountable fees
leads to a dramatic increase in suspended licenses and uninsured drivers
brings distress and hardship to low-income drivers and families
fails to collect from already penny-pinched individuals
increases the state court’s caseload backlog
decreases convictions for DWIs
undermines programs to measure and improve driver behavior and accountability
Bi-partisan coalition of organizations that support this proposal
Texas Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, Austin Justice Coalition, Just Liberty, Texas Association of Business, American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, Christian Life Commission, Texas Public Policy Foundation, Prison Fellowship, and Goodwill Central Texas.
The facts are telling…
Only 40% of surcharges have been collected since the program’s inception in 2003, and when people default, they lose their driver’s license. The system requires individuals to pay surcharges over three years, with many drivers failing to make payments in the second and third year.
Most Texans are unaware of the program until they or a loved one become wrapped up in it. Those who can’t pay the surcharges have their licenses suspended. The DRP has left more than 1.3 million drivers without a license. These drivers must go about their daily routines without a license – dropping off their children at school, commuting to work, running errands – or lose their means of transportation and often their livelihoods. The downstream effect of being unlicensed is that, ultimately, these same drivers are at risk for being uninsured with expired tags. No one carries this heavy burden from DRP surcharges more than low-income individuals and families, who languish in debt and uncertainty.
Without transportation to get to a job, the spiral of impoverishment and debt due to fines and fees spins around the poorest, most vulnerable people in our society faster than they can escape. Several legislative hearings in the past have featured individuals left homeless from this cycle.
Surcharges are so unfair that prosecutors and judges have begun using lenient workarounds to keep from applying them, according to legislative testimony. for example, DWI cases have prosecuted as reckless driving, obstruction of traffic, and public intoxication, according to testimony at legislative hearings, so that defendants wouldn’t be subject to onerous multi-year surcharges they couldn’t pay. In addition, more cases go to trial now in the hope of beating DWI convictions and avoiding the hefty DRP surcharge that accompanies them, wasting court and jail resources.
The whole process makes Texans less safe because many programs proven to change drivers’ behavior and reduce DWI recidivism are typically required as a condition for probation, a common penalty for a first-time DWI conviction. In fact, despite Texas’ growing population, DWI conviction rates declined 10% between 2003 and 2011, which means that, in 2011 alone, an estimated 7,000 Texas drivers were arrested and charged with a DWI but never convicted due to this surcharge-driven trend. Again, these individuals are losing the opportunity to undergo treatment that would normally result from a conviction and probation sentence.
How to fix the problem.
The program has missed its mark by a long shot since it was enacted, with one single exception. It has inarguably generated funding for the general budget and trauma centers. Despite the unified, bi-partisan call to abolish the Driver Responsibility Program for the well-being of those who become mired in debt, the draw of money is too great for lawmakers thus far. Yet, TPPF points out that “minor adjustments to…funding formulas, as well as a requirement that money dedicated to uncompensated trauma care costs cannot be moved to the general revenue fund should easily make up the loss from removal of the DRP surcharges.”
Attempts to improve collection rates and soften the program’s blow on Texans have been largely unsuccessful. Therefore, Just Liberty recommends that the Legislature repeal the program in its entirety and create a fairer, more sustainable funding stream for Texas trauma hospitals.
It’s time to own the shortcomings of the Driver Responsibility Program – the loss of livelihoods, the double-down on fees assessed on motorists, the drain on court resources and public funds, and the growing threat to public safety due to recidivism of DWI offenders – and to repeal DRP this legislative session.