Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Be thankful: Incentive program all the fix we're getting for now on surcharges

As a new incentive program for the Texas Driver Responsibility surcharge belatedly rolls out this month, Grits should remind readers that state Rep. Sylvester Turner from Houston authored the amendment requiring DPS to implement the program, on top of the Indigence and Amnesty programs he'd mandated the previous session. I wrote a thank you note to Rep. Turner's long-time staffer, Alison Brock, with whom I've collaborated for years on this topic. I told her:
Getting the "incentive" program finally implemented this month must for you, as for me, have a bit of a surreal quality - like finally hearing a bell ring after we noiselessly pulled a legislative rope at the capitol 16 months ago! Not many people know enough to say "thank you," so thanks to you and your boss for all you did on that.
People ask legislators for stuff all the time. It never hurts to say "thank you" when you get a "yes," even on small stuff. The indigence and incentive programs were mandated by small, one-word changes - altering "may" to "shall," requiring the Public Safety Commission to implement programs that it had the authority to create but not the political will. Even with that legislative endorsement, DPS waited until the 11th hour then made the incentive program less generous than legislators discussed two years ago.

What's needed, even if, because of hospital subsidies, it's not yet considered politically viable, is outright abolition of the surcharge and retroactive amnesty. Short of that, Turner's incrementalist reforms aren't cure-alls but they will be significant - in the long run, potentially even life changing - for low-income drivers who qualify. It's possible that Rep. Larry Gonzalez's abolition bill or something like it simply takes the surcharge off the books in 2015, shifting hospital subsidies to some other, more appropriate source. Until then, these low-income carve-outs will help many thousands of drivers get out of what can become an intractable financial death spiral. Not the best outcome, but it's something.

MORE: Thinking about how to frame surcharge abolition efforts in 2015, I noticed via Doug Berman this item at SSRN by Wayne Logan and Ronald Wright titled "Mercenary Criminal Justice." The paper's abstract opens, "Today, a growing number of bill collectors are standing in line to collect on the debt that criminals owe to society. Courts order payment of costs; legislatures levy conviction surcharges; even private, for-profit entities get a piece of the action, collecting fees for probation supervision services and the like. While legal financial obligations (LFOs) have long been a part of the criminal justice system, recent budget cutbacks have prompted an unprecedented surge in their use. The resulting funds are dedicated to sustaining and even expanding system operations. With this shift, criminal justice actors have become mercenaries, in effect working on commission." Yep, that's Texas' surcharge program in a nutshell. For Texas DRP surcharge, the private company administering it takes a baseline 4% fee, which is the number the agency always tells the Lege, and around 5.5% in additional fees and charges, as described in this post.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A shout out of appreciation should also go to the Hon. Tim Wright in Williamson County CCL.# 2.
Judge Wright has instigated a program whereby a person convicted of DWLI, Driving while license invalid, can move for a waiver of the surcharges.
While Judicial activisim gets a bad rap at times; this program has definite merit, especially for indigent or semi-indigent persons who have basically been sentenced to debtors prison by virtue of the surcharges.