Texas Tribune Blue Government News
After years of fighting, criminal justice reformers are on track to score a major victory this session: the death of a widely reviled program that they say unfairly punishes low-income Texans by suspending their driver’s licenses and slapping them with big fines.
A bill that would eliminate the Driver Responsibility Program — which adds yearly fees of up to $2,000 on top of the price of a traffic ticket and suspends a person’s license if he or she doesn’t pay — is nearing the governor’s desk.
However, state lawmakers haven’t had much success in reforming a similar, slightly smaller program that, according to records obtained from the Department of Public Safety, has left nearly 1 million people unable to renew their driver’s licenses.
Several lawmakers have target the Omni program, which also strips people of their licenses if they don’t pay court fines and fees, but none of their bills has received a committee hearing, and program critics say reform efforts are likely dead this session.
“The Driver Responsibility Program repeal is huge — it’s going to help a ton of people,” said Emily Gerrick, senior staff attorney with the Texas Fair Defense Project. “But a lot of those people are … still not going to be able to drive legally.”
Since 1995, the state has contracted with OmniBase Services of Texas to run the program, which was created to solve the problem of people not showing up for their court dates or not paying their court fines. Judges have lauded the program as a tool to get defendants to pay their tickets and comply with court orders. The program also requires drivers to pay an additional $30 per case.
Critics say the problem isn’t the $30 fee, which can be waived for those who cannot pay; it’s that low-income drivers can’t renew their driver’s licenses under the program. Unlike the Driver Responsibility Program, which stops a license suspension for people who can’t afford to pay, the Omni program doesn’t offer that option. Drivers can’t get their licenses back until they’ve paid all of their fines and fees or fulfilled their community service requirements, which can take months or years.
Critics say that the program catapults low-income drivers into a quicksand of debt. They say that people who no longer have valid licenses are more likely to be pulled over or accumulate more tickets, which can cause drivers to rack up more fines and fees they can’t pay. And low-income drivers often get hit with additional fees if they can’t make a payment on time or need to use a payment plan.
In the 2018 fiscal year, Texans racked up roughly $15 million in fees through the Omni program, according to a Texas Tribune analysis of data from the Texas comptroller’s office and records obtained from the Department of Public Safety. Two-thirds of that money went to the state, and OmniBase and municipal governments shared the rest.
OmniBase, which gets $6 of every $30 fine levied, received more than $3 million last year, while the nearly 1,000 Texas cities and counties that opt into the program split roughly $2 million.
James Lehman, a fines and fees collection consultant for cities and counties, said OmniBase’s share of the fines isn’t unusual and falls below the legal maximum rate of 30% for private companies that collect debt on criminal fines.
Senate Bill 2189 and House Bill 1372 would reform the program so people wouldn’t lose their license because they cannot pay their fines and fees from their court cases. The bills would also reinstate people’s licenses once they start to comply with court orders — either by paying their fines or appearing in court — and would automatically lift holds on licenses that have been expired for two years.
Rep. James White, R-Hillister, the author of the House bill, said he requested a hearing in the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. But the committee’s chairman, state Rep. Poncho Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass, said he doesn’t recall the bill or discussing it with White.
In the Senate, state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairs the committee that SB 2189 was referred to, but it never got a hearing. He declined a request for comment.
Criminal justice reformers said OmniBase Services was a major obstacle to advancing both bills.
“The vendor was opposed to reform and not interested in creating a better, fairer program,” Mary Mergler, director of Texas Appleseed’s Criminal Justice Project, said in a written statement. “Ultimately, the reforms proposed would have led to fewer people with license holds, which ultimately would have been a hit to the vendor’s bottom line.”
Even when advocates wanted to push for changes that wouldn’t affect the fee payments — and hurt the company’s revenue stream — they said OmniBase wouldn’t budge, according to Gerrick and Mergler.
OmniBase Services of Texas did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
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