TCJC had earlier this spring submitted written testimony to the committee recommending reforms and there were faint hints of some of those proposals in their draft, though in my estimation the recommendations were far too tepid. For example, they agreed to change from three consecutive years of surcharges to a single year with a payment plan, but the reductions in the draft document - none for DWIs, $100 for other offenses - aren't large enough to entice people whose surcharge debt may run into the thousands.
All of the suggestions in the draft legislation were forward looking, taking effect for cases after September 2015.; none of them addressed the backlog of drivers owing surcharges, including around 1.4 million who presently have no licenses because of surcharge nonpayment.
It was particularly disappointing that the draft did not direct the Department of Public Safety to implement another Amnesty program. They have the authority but have only ever done one and have said they don't plan to do another any time soon. But with hundreds of thousands of unpaid surcharges dating back a full decade, at this point, it will be impossible to clear out those old files without some sort of renewed or even beefed up Amnesty program, I told the committee.
The principle element of the bill would allow judges to dismiss charges for driving with no insurance or no license if they get the insurance or license within 20 days. Judges are probably already doing that, so it would codify an unwritten practice. A judge from Harris County (Hughes? I didn't get her name in my notes) testified that 20 days was too short for DWLI, because it took longer than that (perhaps up to 90 days) to schedule and take a DPS driving test if you don't have a driver's license.
Perhaps most significantly in the big picture, the draft would eliminate the three-year structure of the surcharge, reducing lower-level surcharges from $750 over three years to $650 assessed all at once. I told the committee that if drivers had the $650 they'd have bought insurance. Chairman Joe Pickett emphasized that amount could change and was just a placeholder; I acknowledged that and said our recommendation was that they'd need to lower the amount significantly to do much good. It's true, though that the staggered three-year civil payments on top of whatever crimnal fines were already paid has been a tremendous source of on-the ground confusion. If this bill passes, there will be just one un-just, unnecessary extra payment instead of three.
DWIs would also become a one-year surcharge under the committee draft but the amounts would stay the same: $3,000 total on the first offense, $4,500 on the second. DWIs already suffer from a 58% non-payment rate on surcharges, the committee was told. In past committee hearings, a rep from the Texas Association of Counties testified that DWI conviction rates had precipitously declined, mostly because judges and prosecutors were working with defense attorneys to find workarounds (like pleading to obstruction of a roadway) that don't incur surcharges. I suggested that if they thought drunk drivers should pay $3,000 they should put that in the criminal penalty and not have a separate, civil surcharge.
I meant to suggest, I see in my notes, that allowing deferred adjudication for DWI would give counties an option to prosecute DWIs without triggering the surcharge. But I forgot. Oops. Well, maybe their staff are readers.
Chairman Pickett emphasized repeatedly that he did not support getting rid of the Driver Responsibility surcharge, only modifying it slightly to address what he's dubbed are its most objectionable aspects. But how to judge which parts are the most objectionable? ¿Quien sabe? This baby is so reprehensible it deserves to be thrown out with the bathwater. Then set on fire. The swath of human misery this program has left in its wake is difficult to overstate. Very few judges or even prosecutors with first-hand experience have a kind word to say about the surcharge, one finds.
Speaking of which, Judge Edna Staudt, a Williamson County JP, made the excellent point that the thing the Lege liked about the program was the money but the thing causing all the problems is the policy of suspending driver's licenses for nonpayment. That's what's filling the jails and multiplying the number of offenders driving without insurance and/or with an invalid license. If you're looking for incremental reforms, why not eliminate all driver's license suspensions associated with nonpayment of surcharges? That'd mitigate much of the harm.
At this point, even the hospitals say they're fine with eliminating the Driver Responsibility program if the Lege will come up with some other source of funds for trauma hospitals, an idea with which nobody disagrees. All that's required is the political will to identify and implement a revenue source. TCJC suggested several in a 2013 report (pdf); a judge from Harris County suggested others today. And the truth is, the state will likely enjoy a surplus large enough next year that it could spend that sort of money volitionally - just because hospitals are a public good - without having to raise taxes. They could do it just by spending a portion of the budget surplus projected for the next biennium, if anybody really wanted to fix the problem.
Finally, just for my own reference, I should mention that while I was off for vacation the Texas Tribune published an item titled, "Driver program relies on lender fined by feds." Give it a read and see what you think: Something, or nothing? I'm a bit surprised none of those issues came up at today's hearing, which was narrowly focused on the proposed legislation.
MORE (8/5): See coverage from the Dallas News. A minor clarification: I am not "director" of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, I just work for them on this issue as a consultant. Also, reporter Christy Hoppe ID'd the judge mentioned above whose name I failed to record in my notes: Harris County Criminal Court Judge Jean Spradling Hughes. AND MORE: From Texas Public Radio.
See prior, related Grits posts:
- Judge: Driver Responsibility surcharge unfair, 'unconstitutional'
- Radio discussion of Texas' Driver Responsibility surcharge
- Lege ponders the effect of 'Driver Responsibility' surcharge on DWI convictions
- Could Texas Driver Responsibility Surcharge become an election issue? Examining reform suggestions
- DPS announces 'incentive program' rollout on driver surcharges
- Be thankful: Incentive program all the fix we're getting for now on surcharges
- Lege committee looking to tweak Driver Responsibility program; incentive program about to gear up
- Piling on: TPPF offers more reasons to abolish Driver Responsibility surcharge
- House rep promotes abolition of Driver Responsibility surcharge
- Is 2013 the year legislators axe Orwellian-named Driver Responsibility surcharge?
- Did the Driver Responsibility Surcharge cause Texas' voter ID law to be rejected?
- Few defendants getting surcharges waived by judges based on indigence
- Grits to DPS: Enact incentive rules for Driver Responsibility surcharge now
- Amendment tells DPS: Implement incentive rules for Driver Responsibility surcharge
- Hospitals: Driver Responsibility surcharge an unreliable funding source
- What's the one thing John Whitmire and Leo Berman have in common?
- Declining DWI convictions and the unmitigated failure of the Driver Responsibility surcharge
- Federal suit filed to declare Driver Responsibility surcharge unconstitutional
- DPS Director: No public safety benefit from Driver Responsibility Surcharge
- Prosecutors altering charging decisions to avoid Driver Responsibility surcharge
- Driver surcharge boosting Texas joblessness
- Unexplored costs from DPS surcharge harm safety, the economy
- Driver Responsibility surcharge 'devastating' for court system
- Bill author says 'overly punitive' Driver Responsibility surcharge a 'mistake'