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1 July 2010

DPS balking at issuing driver licenses to inmates

via Grits for Breakfast by Gritsforbreakfast on 7/1/10

It'll be awhile before the Department of Public Safety begins to comply with state Rep. Sylvester Turner's  HB 2161, which requires Texas state agencies to facilitate getting drivers' licenses to former inmates upon release.

Although Turner's legislation directed DPS to enter a memorandum of understanding with TDCJ and  the Department of State Health Services to get departing inmates ID, DPS Director Steve McCraw testified at yesterday's House Corrections Committee hearing that he wasn't willing to commit to complying, claiming to do so would cost too much money. He suggested instead that DPS create a mobile licensing station as a "pilot" program for $600,000. Some inmates would need driving tests to get a license, he said (though as a practical matter, such folks could just get a state ID card), and the Real ID Act requires fingerprint verification and other security measures that complicate issuing licenses remotely.

From the dais, Rep. Jerry Madden pointed out that TDCJ is a criminal justice agency that's fully capable of taking fingerprints or performing other tasks, and said there was no reason two state agencies couldn't figure out how to delegate those duties through the memorandum of understanding required by law. McCraw said he'd consider that, but the committee seemed unsatisfied with his answer and several disparaging references were made throughout the day about the state's seeming incompetence to get this done after many years of debating the topic. A consultant from the National Institute of Corrections pointed to the discussion later in the hearing to make the point that government creates many of its own problems. No inmate was responsible for why the state couldn't get them IDs upon release, she said; it was the state's failure causing the barrier.

One reason, I'm sure, for legislators' frustration is that DPS was asked while the bill was pending how much it would cost them to implement the program. The Department of State Health Services said it would cost them $1.5 million per year to comply, but here's what DPS told the Legislative Budget Board according to the fiscal note:

To maintain security to the driver license identity program, the DPS Driver License Division would create a process to accept identifying information from TDCJ and current offender photographs to produce Texas Identification Cards. Modifications to the existing driver license system to create a program to enter, scan, and produce the ID card will require programming estimated to be $56,400. Additionally, costs associated for an image collection application to be developed and manually scan the offender photograph and signature into the driver license system for the ID card is estimated to be $32,000. DPS anticipates one additional FTE (A15 classification) would be needed for this project. DPS has determined that costs associated with implementing the bill would not be significant and could be absorbed with current appropriations.
Now, though, McCraw says it will take five FTEs just to do the pilot, and more if the Lege wants to roll out the program to all inmates, which at 72,000 released per year, he complained, amounted to a "mid-sized city." But that's about the same number released last year and the year before. The agency should have anticipated these costs just as DSHS did instead of lowballing the fiscal note then refusing to comply with the statute after it's passed.

McCraw said the Real ID Act requires certain tasks (like fingerprinting) be performed in person in order for the license to be a "federal purpose document" that allows travel on airplanes, etc.. McCraw seemed resistant to Madden's pragmatic suggestion that DPS delegate duties performed at driver license offices to TDCJ, though he identified no legal or practical barriers to doing so and such duty sharing is clearly anticipated in the bill language about the MOU.

TDCJ's Brian Collier told the committee that, according to their research during implementation, 73% of inmates had some history with DPS - either a driver license or state ID - in the past, and those with shorter sentences like state jail inmates often still have current ID. The other 27% have no such record, usually because they're from out of state, though the agency is studying further the makeup of that group.

McCraw said it's in DPS' interest to deal with inmates before they leave prison instead of having 72,000 more customers at driver license offices, but I wondered as he was speaking if that's really true. Could DPS' hesitation stem from fear of lost licensure revenues? If DPS issues licenses to prisoners, they don't get the associated $24 fee. When an ex-inmate shows up at a driver license office with birth certificate in hand, DPS gets paid. If 73% of exiting prisoners each year pay that $24, that's just more than $1.25 million in lost revenue.

The good news, reported Dee Wilson, who runs TDCJ's new Reentry division, is that inmates are now leaving TDCJ with sufficient documentation (usually a birth certificate and social security card) to get their own driver license when they leave custody. By this time next year, she said, she expected to be able to tell the committee that all 72,000 people released from TDCJ will have either the birth and social security documents or a DPS ID when they left custody.

Chairman Jim McReynolds said the idea behind the bill was that offenders would leave TDCJ with a DPS ID or driver license in hand when they walked out the door. He pointed out that the first two months - and he could have added the first few days - after release are critical to whether or not someone recidivates, so creating a gap during that period without ID problematically thwarts the intent and specific dictates of the bill.

McCraw's intransigence seems particularly inexplicable when compared to the agency's TDEX database (Texas' version of "Total Information Awareness" and one of McCraw's pet projects from when he was the governor's homeland security director). For that project, there seems to be no end to the spare cash the agency can find lying around in the couch cushions. But the whole Big-Brotherish TDEX boondoggle has never resulted in a documented arrest nor terrorist act prevented, while facilitating prisoner reentry has direct, immediate and positive public safety impacts.

Wilson and TDCJ should be commended for getting as far as they have - leaving prison with that documentation is a lot better than nothing - but it's depressing the state as a whole can't figure out how to get this done.

MORE: Tela Mange, public information officer for DPS, emails to say "By the way, DPS does not retain any of the money for DLs/IDs. All that $ goes to GenRev." Duly noted, and thanks, Tela, for the clarification.

Posted via email from the Un-Official Southwestern PA Re-Entry Coalition Blog

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