July 24, 2007
Are you wanted by the police?

According to State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, the odds are one-in-ten that the answer is Yes. Surprised? Wait till you see why so many people are on the lam:

A couple of weeks ago, the local paper printed names of El Pasoans with outstanding arrest warrants. 78,000 El Pasoans made the paper! What's going on here?

Here are the facts. Of the 78,000 almost all are for moving violations. In fact, most are violations of the Texas Driver Responsibility Act of 2003.

Shapleigh has a table listing the violations that led to the warrants, for utterly ordinary things like "Motor Vehicle Inspections" (10,299 warrants) and "Safety Belt" (2,976 warrants). There are over 140,000 such warrants, for over 59,000 people, which in and of itself is more than 10% of El Paso County (population 563,000). He goes on:

When we compared Austin, same story: 11% of Austin has outstanding arrest warrants. How did that happen?

In 2003, on the House floor, Rep. Diane Delisi told Texans that the "Driver Responsibility" bill was needed "to improve driver's behavior." Everyone in Austin knew that the real story was money. After 9/11, Texans quit buying. Sales tax revenues dropped so much that Texas now had a $10 billion budget deficit. Rather than raise taxes, Republicans cut taxes on the wealthiest Texans, cut programs like CHIP, then shifted fees, tuition and tickets to low and middle income Texans.

During debate, a study of the bill based on New Jersey's Act showed exactly who would pay the freight--low-income citizens. To make the bill more popular, ticket revenue was tied to trauma care.

At the time, Senator John Whitmire and others said, "Watch out--here comes the 'chain gang.'" For the first time, fees, tickets and tuition paid for sizable chunk of the Texas budget. Under the bill, fees escalate dramatically. Theoretically, after three tickets, a driver can owe $3,000 and more, depending on the offense.

And if you can't pay, you go to jail.

And that is exactly what happened. Nearly one in ten Texans can't pay: students, single mothers, working families, essentially low and even middle income Texans whose income can't keep up with gas, insurance, taxes and tickets too.


Today, I wrote Senator Carona and asked his Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security to hear Texans on this issue. During the early years of Texas, thousands came here from England and the East Coast to escape debt (and debtor's prisons). Today, our own tax system uses the threat of prison to collect trauma care money.

Working on the chain gang makes it awfully hard to pay for a ticket.

So let's think about this for a minute. We're using moneys generated from traffic tickets to help fund the budget. When people can't pay the often-exorbitant fines and fees, we put out a warrant for their arrest, so we can throw them in jail, where it will cost the state money to house and feed them while we try to squeeze them for what they owe. (Being in jail at the time, of course, makes it hard for them to earn money to pay their way out of jail.) Taken to its logical end, if other counties are like El Paso and Travis, we might have to lock up some two million people. (Anybody know how many empty prison beds Louisiana currently has?)

And they say red light cameras are a "revenue grab". Where's Michael Kubosh when you really need him?

Let's be succinct here: This ain't right. This needs to be a top issue in the 81st Lege. And I sincerely hope Sen. Carona heeds Sen. Shapleigh's call for some public hearings on this, so it can get the attention it deserves. Thanks to Grits for the link.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 24, 2007 to Crime and Punishment