For Immediate Release: July 13, 2020
Texas Fair Defense Project
New Study Finds Nearly 550,000 Holds in Houston-Area Court Prevent Residents From Renewing Driver’s Licenses for Unpaid Fines
Driver’s license holds disproportionately impact Black residents and lower income communities
AUSTIN, Texas — Houston-area courts regularly punish people for their poverty through driver’s license renewal holds, which issue when a person cannot pay a ticket and related debt. The OmniBase Program, under which judges place renewal holds on people’s driver’s licenses for unpaid fines, has a particularly profound effect on residents of Houston and the surrounding area, a new study from Texas Appleseed and Texas Fair Defense Project reveals. These holds are concentrated in low-income neighborhoods and disproportionately impact Black people in Houston.
The report, Driven by Debt: Houston, presents new data about how many OmniBase holds are issued by Houston-area municipal and justice courts for traffic tickets and other fine-only misdemeanors. These holds create an additional hurdle that people who are struggling financially must clear in order to gain employment and achieve financial stability.
Select key findings include:
- There are nearly 550,000 OmniBase holds in Houston-area courts preventing people from renewing their licenses until their tickets are paid in full, most of which are from the Houston Municipal Court.
- Forty percent of these license holds are applied to Black people, who make up less than a quarter of the city’s population.
- As the median income of a Houston zip code increased, the rate of OmniBase holds in that zip code decreased.
“Suspending a person’s driver’s license for not paying fines makes it more difficult for them to earn a living, not to mention to earn the money to pay off the debt,” said Mary Mergler, with Texas Appleseed. “Particularly given the massive loss of employment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is urgent for cities and counties to remove this obstacle so that people can restore their licenses and have a better chance of returning to stable employment.”
The report also sheds light on how difficult it is to resolve fines and fees that people cannot afford, given data about how rarely alternative sentences are used. Instead of regularly using waivers or alternative sentences like community service when a person cannot pay the debt, courts issue warrants: Houston-area courts issued more than 300,000 warrants related to unresolved tickets and fines in 2019. Last year, the Houston Police Department arrested more than 6,000 people solely related to these fine-driven Class C warrants; 3 in 5 people arrested were Black.
“Our organization has helped hundreds of people with driver’s license suspensions, all of whom desperately wanted to be able to drive legally but lacked the money to pay their fines in full,” said Amanda Woog, Executive Director of Texas Fair Defense Project. “Given how important a driver’s license is to so many necessities—to hold down a job, take one’s children to daycare, go to the doctor, even apply for an apartment—Houston should prioritize restoring people’s licenses so they can move on with their lives and provide for their families.”
Driven by Debt: Houston recommends that both the City of Houston and Harris County end their participation in the OmniBase Program. The Harris County Commissioners Court is scheduled to vote on the Harris County contract with the Department of Public Safety, which in turn contracts with OmniBase, at the Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday, July 14.
“This report confirms what we already suspected about these programs—that they needlessly punish those who are already the most vulnerable by getting them stuck in a cycle of fines and fees that they cannot afford to pay,” said Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis. “I am hopeful that the Commissioners Court will recognize the need to end the Failure to Appear Program and to lift all existing holds. By terminating this Program, we can help those impacted, who are disproportionately our low-income and Black residents, get out of this dangerous cycle of fines and fees and have access to safe transportation during this ongoing pandemic.”
In addition, local courts should focus on tailoring fines to each individual’s ability to pay, making it more likely people will be able to comply with court orders. “This report highlights the expensive price tag we put on justice, particularly for our most vulnerable communities,” said Judge Jeremy Brown, Harris County Justice of the Peace for Precinct 7, Place 1. “The time has come for us to reimagine how we assess and collect fines and fees and honestly ask ourselves, does our system provide justice or is it overly oppressive?”
On Wednesday, July 15, Texas Fair Defense Project and Texas Appleseed, along with the Earl Carl Institute for Legal & Social Policy at Thurgood Marshall School of Law, will host a free online clinic to inform people struggling with OmniBase holds and unaffordable fines about how to resolve what they owe and restore their licenses. The online presentation is open to the public. Reserve a spot here.
About Texas Appleseed
Texas Appleseed is a public interest justice center that works to change unjust laws and policies that prevent Texans from realizing their full potential. Our nonprofit conducts data-driven research that uncovers inequity in laws and policies and identifies solutions for lasting, concrete change. For more information, visit www.TexasAppleseed.org.
About Texas Fair Defense Project
Texas Fair Defense Project fights to end the criminalization of poverty in Texas. For more information, visit www.fairdefense.org.