FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: August 16, 2021
Texas Fair Defense Project
New Report Reveals Detrimental OmniBase Program Also Fails to Produce Increased Court Revenue
Approximately 670 Texas cities opt into OmniBase, creating fear and a cycle of debt for drivers
AUSTIN, Texas — A new report reveals how the OmniBase program, operated by the Texas Department of Public Safety and used by local courts across the state to prevent driver’s license renewals, fails to achieve its purpose — increasing court compliance and revenue collection — while negatively impacting more than 400,000 Texans. Analysis of data from over 800 municipal courts in Texas shows that courts that use OmniBase see no financial or enforcement benefits over courts that do not use the program.
The report, Driven by Debt: The Failure of the OmniBase Program, is released by advocacy organizations Texas Appleseed and Texas Fair Defense Project.
“The new data is clear and reinforces what we’ve known all along — that the OmniBase program is problematic and ineffective,” said Amelia Casas, policy analyst at Texas Fair Defense Project. “OmniBase simply seems to exist to further debilitate Texans who are already hurting financially and prevent them from legally driving to places like work to earn the very money that they need to pay off their debts.”
Harms of OmniBase
OmniBase prevents Texans from renewing their driver’s licenses, issuing what is known as a “hold,” when a person is unable to pay ticket-related fines and fees or fails to appear in court, typically associated with traffic offenses. While Texans with access to financial resources can often pay off their tickets, indigent Texans struggle with completing a partial or full payment. The only way to lift a hold is to completely pay off all the debt — even drivers who comply with the court by paying through a payment plan or working off their debt via community service cannot reclaim their licenses until the debt is satisfied in full. Even more troubling, while judges are required by Texas law to consider a person’s ability to pay, many judges reject applying the alternatives at their disposal, like community service, waivers and payment plans. Texans who are too poor to pay often continue to drive with an invalid license to meet their basic needs, such as getting to work, school, or doctor’s appointments. OmniBase holds can often lead to warrants and jail time when people continue to receive tickets.
“It’s promising that jurisdictions such as Harris County and the City of Austin have opted out of OmniBase, and that the City of Dallas appears poised to opt out as well,” said Chris Harris, director of the Criminal Justice project at Texas Appleseed. “Cities and counties increasingly understand that OmniBase exacerbates poverty and disproportionately harms Black and Brown community members while also failing to improve public safety. On top of all that, we now know that OmniBase doesn’t even correspond with collecting more revenue. At this point it's unclear what purpose the program serves besides generating fees for the OmniBase Services of Texas corporation.”
Data Collection & Select Findings
The organizations analyzed data from more than 800 active municipal courts in Texas through public information requests to the Texas Department of Public Safety on jurisdictions with OmniBase cases and municipal court activity by city from the Office of Court Administration.
- Active courts in cities that use the OmniBase program have $45.44 less average revenue collected per criminal case disposed than active courts in cities without the program. Noting that, there is no significant difference between active courts in cities that use the OmniBase program and active courts in cities that do not use the OmniBase program, for both the average amount of revenue collected per criminal case disposed and for the median ranks of revenue collected per criminal case disposed. (2019 data)
- Of the 670 cities using OmniBase, the top 15 largest cities using the program are Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, El Paso, Arlington, Corpus Christi, Laredo, Killeen, McAllen, Mesquite, Waco, Round Rock, Abilene, Odessa, and Pearland. (2019 data)
- As waivers and community service increased, so did the amount of funds collected per case. (January 2015-October 2020)
- In an analysis of two jurisdictions that most recently ended their OmniBase contracts (Harris County and the City of Austin), revenue per criminal case disposed without OmniBase increased slightly after ceasing the contract with OmniBase. (2019-2021 data)
Additionally, we draw from our previous reports on the OmniBase program, using data from requests to the Texas Department of Public Safety on jurisdictions with OmniBase cases and municipal court records in Dallas and Houston.
- In an analysis of residential zip codes within Dallas County and the City of Houston, data mapping shows that OmniBase holds tend to be concentrated in lower-income zip codes. (2017 data)
- In a statewide analysis, Black drivers are also disproportionately impacted by OmniBase holds. (2018 data)
“People are rightly fearful of ending up in jail or losing their jobs, simply because they are in an unmanageable cycle of debt and are unable to pay,” said Harris.
The organizations urge local governments to do the following:
- Immediately opt out of their participation in the OmniBase program
- Reduce barriers to resolving tickets by providing accessible avenues for fine and fee waivers, reductions, and alternatives to payment like community service
- Update court forms to provide clarity about people’s obligations and opportunities for relief
About Texas Fair Defense Project
Texas Fair Defense Project is a nonprofit legal organization that fights to end the criminalization of poverty in Texas. We work to create a world where people who are poor are provided with resources and systems of support, rather than systems of surveillance and punishment. Visit www.fairdefense.org.
About Texas Appleseed
Texas Appleseed is a public interest justice center. Our nonprofit, celebrating our 25th anniversary in 2021, works to change unjust laws and policies that prevent Texans from realizing their full potential. We anchor a dynamic network of pro bono partners and collaborators to develop and advocate for innovative and practical solutions to complex issues. Texas Appleseed also conducts data-driven research that uncovers inequity in laws and policies and identifies solutions for lasting, concrete change. Visit www.texasappleseed.org.