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Driven by Debt: The Failure of the OmniBase Program

Highlights

Cities that do not use the OmniBase Programs collect $45 more per criminal case disposed of than cities that use the OmniBase program.

The OmniBase Failure to Appear Program places holds on license renewals (making it an offense to drive) when the license holder fails to pay fines and fees or fails to appear in court, usually for traffic offenses. Its goal is to increase court compliance and collections by providing an enforcement tool; however, there is no evidence that the OmniBase program accomplishes these goals. Once an individual receives an OmniBase Hold, a warrant can be issued and they can be arrested. The second time an individual with an invalid license due to the OmniBase program is pulled over, the DWLI (driving with an invalid license) charge can be enhanced to a Class B offense, which carries a steeper fine and the potential of a jail sentence. This report draws on data from municipal and Justice of the Peace courts, public information requests to the Texas Department of Public Safety, and self-reported data from over 800 active municipal courts in Texas. Analysis shows the OmniBase program causes harm through punitive and compounding fines and fees, and is not associated with improved collection rates. 

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Key Findings:

  • 601 of the 806 cities analyzed used the OmniBase Program program.  
  • In 2019, the average amount of revenue collected per criminal case disposed of in cities that use the OmniBase Program was $188. Cities that don’t use OmniBase collected $233, a $45 difference.
  • Harris County and the City of Austin canceled their contract with the OmniBase program in 2020 and saw a slight increase in revenue per criminal case disposed of.
  • In 2017, the data showed that people with OmniBase Holds are concentrated in low-income zip codes and are more likely to be people of color.
  • Black people make up 11 percent of licensed drivers in Texas and 29 percent of people with OmniBase Holds.
  • OmniBase Holds often lead to warrants and jail time when people cannot pay the fines and fees.
  • People with money pay their tickets within the first 30 days of receiving the ticket. 
  • Nearly no one with OmniBase Hold knows what the program is and how it affects them.
  • In 2017 and 2019, legislation to expand access to community service and waivers passed and Texas Courts saw increased use.

Recommendations:

  • Local governments should opt-out of participating in the OmniBase Program.
  • Courts should reduce barriers to resolving tickets by providing access to fine and fee waivers, reductions, and alternative payment options like community service.
  • Redesign court forms to provide clarity about people’s obligations and opportunities for relief.
Texas Appleseed & Texas Fair Defense Project
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