Thursday, July 03, 2008

Dallas County turns to traffic fines to cover basic budget

Last year Dallas had to forego a traffic ticket roundup because the county jail was overstuffed and couldn't handle the extra inmates. Now that Dallas County faces a $34 million budget shortfall, however, commissioners suddenly appear more sanguine about jail overcrowding. Reports the Dallas News ("Dallas County deputies to begin arresting people with unpaid tickets today," July 1):

the county is unleashing more than 250 deputy constables and sheriffs across North Texas to begin arresting people who haven't paid their tickets.

The county is launching its 90-day zero-tolerance operation to collect as much of the $200 million in unpaid traffic tickets as possible.

The more than 600,000 outstanding tickets date back decades, but county officials need only to collect a small percentage to generate a windfall of needed revenue.

The county is facing a $34 million budget gap for the upcoming 2009 fiscal year.

Deputies will travel to as many counties as possible to serve the misdemeanor warrants, Commissioner John Wiley Price said.

"We'll go get them wherever we find them," he said.

As emergency options go, this idea makes more sense than firing lawyers in the public defender office, but not by much.

Increasingly counties rely on fine revenue (and using jails to extract it) in order to pay for basic services. It's expensive to use the jail to coerce debtors: It costs $45 per day to house everybody they arrest, and if they can't pay they must sit in jail at the taxpayers expense. Plus you can add a great deal of travel costs (at $4 per gallon) to the idea's downside. And that doesn't even consider the potential harm to public safety of taking 250 peace officers off the streets to track down old traffic misdemeanors. What would those officers be doing otherwise if not deployed on this money making scheme?

We're in a bizarre point in Texas history where the reliance on fine revenue has become so great and the range of offenses fined expanded so dramatically that approximately 10% of adult Texans have outstanding arrest warrants, mostly because fees were increased so much many people can't pay. The problem is, to the extent they actually can't pay, you can't fit 10% of the population in the jail!

"It's $200 million. We're going after our money," said County Commissioner John Wiley Price.

Make me philosopher king and I'd ratchet down traffic fines - or at least end the so-called Driver Responsibility program - and insist that taxation fund government's basic services. We've long passed the point where fining traffic offenders is primarily about safety. At this point, as Price admits, it's all about the money.


Anonymous said...

Let me get this straight. The commissioners are going to generate revenue by arresting people? Let's do the math here. Let's say someone owes $500 in unpaid tickets. Subtract from that $500 to cost of the extra men to do the arresting, the cost of overtime pay for the jailers to book these people in, the cost of gas and maintenance on the cars in order to go find these people, as well as other administrative costs. Seems to me, it will caost the county more to arrest them than anything else.

Maybe they should try an amnesty program or debt forgiveness. Agree to forego 1/2 the fine in exchange for payment on the other?

Or maybe the commissioners are hoping to overcrowd the jails just enough not to pass inspection, create situations that would be dangerous to inamtes and jailers, and possibly cause enough damage to lead to yet another lawsuit against the county.

Robert Langham said...

There isn't a cure for stupidity like this.

Anonymous said...

Would someone please explain to me why, in this modern age of computers in Texas, we can not follow a similiar policy practiced in other states?

When one has to re-new their drivers license or auto registration, their name pops up in the computer and they then have to clear up the outstanding traffic tickets. Or if they are stopped by police and found they have an outstanding ticket, then they are arrested. No need for all these dramatic, expensive, early morning roundups.

Anonymous said...

Oh come on guys. Don't be so daft!

They dont really plan to go arrest everyone with an old ticket.

They are merely trying to SCARE people into paying their outstanding tickets.

They are just shaking the tree Come on, you knew that!

Anonymous said...

I'll bet it cost more than $34 Million to issue and track all of the fees they hope to collect!

Adding jail time costs to the total borders on criminal stupidity. I'll have to agree, they're just trying to scare people.

A better approach would be to
take a hard look at some of the laws used to impose these fines.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the amnesty program. Wipe the slate clean and start over. Then NOT wait till the county is in a budget mess and firing its employees before coming up with some lame roundup scheme.

Anonymous said...

This is yet another example of extremely short-sighted "solutions" coming from the Dallas County Commissioners Court. Cut PD positions to save on salary and benefits - nevermind that it will cost significantly more for private court-appointed attorneys to do the same work. Here: we're going to "go get our money" - nevermind that it will cost more to get it and even more if people can't or just won't pay... Stupidity at its most stupid.

Anonymous said...

I am always amused by the buffoonery of our politicians. The bad part is that they are paid with OUR tax money!

Anonymous said...

I would have to disagree that they won't actually waste the time and money to go arrest people...I'm an attorney, and a deputy appeared at my office to collect a $190 fine I had forgotten about and never got a notice in the mail b/c they had my address wrong. Given the fact that some people literally owe THOUSANDS of dollars in old fines, I question whether my single speeding ticket was truly a top priority or if they are choosing to go after people they think can afford to pay first. The fact that they fine people $190 and more for speeding less than 10 miles over the limit is a WHOLE other issue...what a racket.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Coupla quick comments -

Russ, TX does do those things but the County is cash strapped and can't just wait for the arrests to "pop up." Also, the state has jacked up fines and fees so high that many people simply cannot pay and then drive without a license, insurance, etc.. The so-called "driver responsibility" fees are $250-$1,000 per year for THREE years following the ticket, depending on the offense. A lot of people also pay the first year then forget or don't understand a multi-year "fee" for a traffic ticket, which is to be fair a bizarre concept.

@10:23 - Why is it, I wonder, that the root ambition of many criminal justice policies is to "scare" people into this or that behavior? You'd think we'd have learned by now some people scare easier than others, plus you can't be scared into having more money in your bank account when the deputy shows up at your door!

John D. McLauchlan said...

What gets me is that the commissioners didn't see this coming. 200 million in back fines is a little hard not to notice. One would think they would have explored some of these other potential revenue sources BEFORE they went after various departments to cut their budgets (ie., departmental staff).

Of course, in the case of "at will" employees, what an opportunity for commissioners, department heads and supervisors to start getting rid of pesky employees they never bothered to write up and who may have challenged them on one issue or another.

Anonymous said...

The YEE HAA cowboy syndrome is now catching up with Texas and in a big way. But Texas is going to need this money, you all, because the court settlements with the parents of the FLDS children may well cost Texas billions, and I hope they do. This lunacy must end. I urge everyone in Texas to send donations to the FLDS lawyers to help with legal expenses. This sounds like something from Soviet Russia--Today you get the "knock on the door" because we don't like your religion and then, later on at night time, you get a second knock on the door and we throw you in jail for an unpaid traffic ticket. When was the last time a state seized 400 children because an allegation had been made that, possibly, a few might be in jeopardy? If Texans continue to joyously fund the construction of ever more prisons there just might be room enough, eventually, for everyone in the state---except for the very rich, of course, who hide in private estates behind their own guards--and so, in a way, they are convicts as well. Justly so. Good luck to the legal team of FLDS--Don't settle with Texas until the state legal system is totally rebuilt. James Harrison for William Harrison TDCJ #864645