Judge David Hodges, Judicial Liaison, Texas Center for the Judiciary, provided that the most pressing legislative issue with DWI cases is to eliminate or substantially reduce the license renewal surcharges that is imposed on DWI convictions by the Driver's Responsibility law. Since imposing these surcharges: Conviction rates have decreased every year; in 2005, 99,501 DWI arrest resulted in 63,132 convictions. In 2009, 102,309 DWI arrest resulted in 44,777 convictions. Dismissal rates have increased every year; DWI cases are prosecuted as reckless driving, obstruction of highway, and public intoxication, in order to avoid the civil penalty.Correlation is not causation, but what a massive drop in DWI conviction rates - from 63.5% in 2005 to 43.8% in 2009 - in the years following implementation of the Driver Responsibility surcharge. That's a 31% decrease in conviction rates statewide! And according to anecdotal evidence from testimony at the Senate hearing described in the report, the surcharge is the biggest factor in the decline, causing defendants to be less likely to take plea deals and prosecutors and judges to question whether justice is served by applying civil penalties on top of criminal ones.
Courts' pending caseload has gone up significantly- an increase of approximately 25,000 cases. At the current statewide trial capacity, it would take 16 years to dispose of these cases, if they all demand a trial. 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.
Judge Hodges proceeded to address the significant decline in the number of DWI defendants being placed on probation. The decline being a result of all incentives to accept probation having been removed from the DWI statutes. It has become a much more viable option for defendants to simply accept a jail term, which can then be discharged through three for one credit in overcrowded county jails. Lost in this process is the opportunity to change the future behavior of those DWI defendants who are likely to re-offend. Statistically, at least one third of first offenders will re-offend, and a much higher percentage of second offenders will commit a third and subsequent offenses. The ability of trial judges to grant deferred adjudication and early release for completion of all terms of probation as well as when a defendant is no longer a concern to the public safety, as in all other criminal cases, should be restored.
Judge Hodges also called for their elimination of the current system of driver's license suspensions (ALR) and special need licenses. Only those currently required by federal law should be retained, with those being placed in one statue.
Concerning the mandated DWI education course, and the repeat offenders DWI education course (both required for receiving certain federal funds), Judge Hodges stated they are not effective and suggested that the curriculum be reviewed and rewritten to incorporate adult learning and cognitive education principles.
State Rep. Leo Berman has filed HB 299 to abolish the surcharge, and I see no reason why that bill shouldn't enjoy broad, bipartisan support. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee's report makes a strong argument why even those backing harsher criminal punishments for DWI should want to get rid of this unworkable civil surcharge: The justice system can't punish defendants unless they're convicted, after all.
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