Harris County to end OmniBase Program that disproportionately impacts Blacks

For Harris County residents, having access to a car is indispensable for daily activities such as getting to work, to a doctor’s appointment, and to pick up necessities like groceries.

Particularly as COVID-19 cases continue to rise, and people are increasingly at-risk of losing their jobs, having access to safe and reliable transportation is critical. A recent report, Driven by Debt: Houston, estimated that not only does this program impact hundreds of thousands of drivers in the Greater Houston area, but that those impacted are disproportionately Black and low-income residents.

“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.”

Today, the Harris County Commissioners Court agreed to terminate the County’s contract with Texas Department of Public Safety, ending the Failure to Appear Program and lifting all existing holds Harris County courts placed on driver’s licenses. The program places holds on driver’s licenses when they have unpaid fines or fees. Ending this contract will lift almost 25,000 driver’s license holds, giving Harris County residents back their driver’s license.

“We know that taking away someone’s driver’s license makes it less—not more–likely that they will be able to pay off fines and fees,” said Commissioner Rodney Ellis. “But now we also know that this program is disproportionately hurting our most vulnerable residents. Keeping their driver’s licenses suspended for simply being unable to pay old fines in the middle of a global pandemic and growing recession is unacceptable. I am proud that we voted to end this contract, and that we will be able to give tens of thousands of people their driver’s licenses back.”

Harris County joins other cities across Texas, including Fort Worth, Arlington, Pasadena and Austin, that do not participate in the program. Not only does the program not improve driver safety, it also does not improve collection of fines. The Driven by Debt: Houston report showed that Harris County Justice Courts that do not use the OmniBase Program collect more on average than those that do.

As Harris County continues to both deal with the acute public health and economic impacts of COVID-19, Precinct One is proud to have secured the end to this program that trapped residents in a cycle of debt, allowing Harris County’s most vulnerable residents to get back on track.