David Hodges, who served as a state district judge based in McLennan County, told the panel that the Texas Driver Responsibility Program has had a "devastating" effect on the Texas court system, and judges across the state are reporting at least two years of pending driving-while-intoxicated cases as more defendants seek trials.
"Our criminal justice system is supposed to be about changing behavior and making our streets safer, but there is no evidence that this program is making our streets safer," said Hodges, now judicial liaison for the Texas Center for the Judiciary, which provides training and support for judges.
Not only are more DWI cases being dismissed, but others are resulting in lesser charges, such as reckless driving, to help reduce the huge backlog, he noted.
"There is credible research to show that this program has actually created a new class of criminals that we're having to deal with," said Ho dges.
Another DWI court judge from Williamson County, James Twine, asked that judges be given discretion to reduce or eliminate surcharges as incentive for participation in probation and treatment programming, arguing like Hodges that the surcharge is a disincentive for changing offender behavior.
Representatives from several reform groups, including the Texas Fair Defense Project, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, and the ACLU of Texas testified in favor of more aggressive reforms to the program. In addition, the agency received 188 written comments about the rules.
The only opposition came from three speakers, all associated with hospitals, who opposed the rule change because they support maximizing money from surcharges going to hospitals for trauma care. (49.5% of DRP revenue goes to trauma care, 49.5% to state general revenue, and 1% to DPS for administration.) However, it wasn't always clear the hospitals were attacking the amendments at hand so much as expressing fear that the program might be eliminated altogether: Rick Antonisse of the North Central Texas Trauma Regional Advisory Council said reformers shouldn't advocate its elimination without finding an alternative funding source for hospitals.
Several things about that: First, the Public Safety Commission has no authority to abolish the program, only to create Indigency and Incentive programs for low-income drivers and to grant Amnesty to address the backlog of people who haven't paid. Neither the proposal put forward by DPS staff nor the alternative rules suggested by advocates would do that, so the reactions mostly addressed a proposal (ending the program) that wasn't on the table.
Indeed, there's little reason to believe inidgent people are presently paying these high fees. There's a reason nearly 2/3 go unpaid. In fact, there's a strong argument that the Amnesty suggestion from advocates would increase revenue in the short term by getting at least some money from presently noncompliant drivers. If DPS pushed and advertised an amnesty program aggressively, perhaps having the vendor promote it just like they regularly seek collections by mail and phone, it could be a significant source of short-term revenue. For example, if noncompliant drivers could pay $250 to clear their surcharges and get their licenses back and 1/3 of non-compliant drivers took advantage, it would raise $100 million.
The fact is, most people who get these surcharges cannot or do not pay them, either because they're too high, too confusing, or people just can't accept that they all of a sudden owe money on tickets they've already paid, and for three years, no less. Comments from hospitals all ignored this dysfunction and claimed them getting their money was more important than any other consideration.
I'm sure it is, to them, but that seems shortshighted in part because, by demanding money for uncompensated care from this source, they're generating extra uncompensated care because so many more drivers now have no license or insurance. A back of the envelope calculation finds that those 1.2 million unlicensed, uninsured drivers will be involved in more than 35,000 auto accidents each year, increasing uncompensated care for trauma centers and causing even greater, additional costs for many other people.
What's more, DRP surcharges are boosting joblessness among those who lose their licenses, reducing state tax revenue and the number of insured consumers treated at trauma centers, further harming hospitals via uncompensated care.
I don't know whether those uncompensated care costs equal or exceed what hospitals are getting from the program, but really the Legislature should find a source for hospitals that doesn't include so many hidden costs and unintended consequences.
In any event, those are concerns for next session, when one presumes (or at least hopes) that legislators will take another run at abolishing the Driver Responsibility surcharge altogether: I don't believe the changes suggested in the near-term would significantly reduce income to the fund, and an Amnesty program could increase revenue.
The Public Safety Commission will meet today and there's an item on their agenda for a discussion of the hearing and public comments submitted, though no action is scheduled to be taken. Commissioners were mostly mum throughout yesterday's hearing, but may reveal more today about how they may proceed on these rules. I've got to spend time today on something somebody will actually pay me for and cannot attend, but I'm dying to hear what they have to say.