Getting Out of Grover's Tub

Chapter 17: Debtors' Prisons

What about debtors’ prisons here in Texas? Actually, debtors’ prisons have a long history here—and now, they are back.
Following the Texas revolution in 1836, the new Republic of Texas advertised in east coast papers to lure debtors here. As a new nation, on the frontier with Mexico, Sam Houston and others feared that Santa Ana might return, so young Texas did everything possible to lure debtors here—to settle, thrive and defend Texas.
Often, people fleeing crushing debt in other parts of the country would scrawl in chalk on the doors of their abandoned houses the initials G.T.T. for “Gone to Texas.”

During this era, east coast states made life hard on debtors. Only five years before the Texas Revolution, in 1831, did New York state outlaw debtors’ prisons. Remember, back then, debtors’ prisons were a way of life. From England to New England creditors put debtors in prison until debts were paid—by debtors, families or friends. These individuals were treated worse than felons, given no food while incarcerated and forced to beg passersbys from jail windows. Often, whole families would be locked up together until their creditors were satisfied. 
Of these prisons, Samuel Johnson, the famed biographer who twice spent time in debtors’ prisons, said “We have now imprisoned one generation of debtors for another…but we do not find that their numbers lessen."
Why then has Texas returned to debtor’s prisons? Here’s how that happened.  
In 2003, with a $10 billion budget deficit, the 78th Legislature created the Driver Responsibility Program (DRP) to help fund state trauma care centers and the Texas Mobility Fund.
The program, however, disproportionately punishes low and middle income, and minority Texans with expensive fees. Of the 1,600,000 who have received notices under the program, 1,080,000 can’t pay. The program simply used punitive fines to plug holes in the budget.
Under the DRP:

  • Points are accumulated for moving violation convictions. After six points, drivers are required to pay a $100 surcharge each year for three years. Each additional point on a driver’s record will cost an additional $25 a year;
  • Under the program, driving while intoxicated carries an automatic $1,000 annual surcharge for a first offense. Each subsequent conviction carries an additional $1,500 annual surcharge;
  • Driving without a license carries a $150 penalty, plus a $100 annual surcharge, making the total violation $450. Driving with an invalid license  would cost a driver $150, plus a $250 annual surcharge, making the total violation $900;
  • Texans caught driving without proof of insurance would be required to pay a $250 fee, plus an automatic annual surcharge of $250 for three years from the date of their conviction, making the total cost of the violation $1,000; and
  • Should a driver commit one of these latter two violations again within that three years, they would be assessed an additional annual surcharge.

Many Texas drivers were not aware that a surcharge was even going to be assessed because the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) did not have available funds to advertise the change in policy. According to DPS, to this day, the department still does not have the funds for a public service announcement or campaign, and courts are not required to give information on the surcharges.
Last Legislative Session a bill, S.B. 1723, authorized an Indigent Program for the DRP that has not been implemented. DPS today still lacks the resources to implement this program and lacks the authority to reduce surcharge violations in proportion to an offenders indigence status.
Accumulated fees as a result of these surcharges could total hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Some face $1,750 fines for a first time offense.  Many Texans affected by these automatic surcharges are first-time offenders, students, single parents or low-income families who are now faced with the choice of either complying with the law, or paying for their education, rent, food for their families or emergency expenses like car repair or medical bills.
Many people facing surcharges have opted to simply not pay. According to DPS, unpaid surcharges are approaching $900 million.
By October 2008, of the 1,121,348 drivers required to pay surcharges, 783,536 did not pay, a roughly 30 percent rate of compliance. By March 2009, of the 1,600,000 in the program, more than 1,080,000 can’t pay.
This has also resulted in a significant number of Texas drivers – especially in El Paso – being faced with arrest warrants. In July 2007, I sent a letter to Senator John Carona, chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security, informing him that as of May 2007, eleven percent of people in El Paso and Austin had outstanding warrants.
According to the Legislative Budget Board (LBB), surcharges have led to 800,000 hardworking Texans now driving uninsured due to this program, as many Texas drivers find themselves faced with either paying assessed fees or paying for continued liability insurance.
Since many people are simply not paying their fees, the program failed in its intended purpose—funding trauma centers.
During the 81st Legislative Session in 2009, we worked hard to fix the DRP. A bill we originally offered called for dissolving the program all together, but opposition from other senators forced a compromise.
On the Senate floor, we offered a bill that would have made significant reforms to the program. Our bill, however, stalled in the House. Once budget writers get addicted to excessive fines, bills to reform it are hard to pas. Our bill had to be amended onto another bill to survive. By the time budget writers were done with the bill, the only one of our suggested provisions that survived provided for exempting people living at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level. Even still, that provision won’t take effect until 2011.
Meanwhile, more Texans are stuck paying punitive fines to plug holes in the budget.
Our founders never intended for debtor’s prisons to substitute for a tax system.