Offender’s Story: Untying The Bonds Of Court Debt
Thousands of offenders in Oklahoma fail to pay what they owe on court fines and fees each year.
The reason often has less to do with defiance than with being too poor to make good on debt, some judges say.
In Oklahoma County, for example, as of August the district court had about 134,000 open cases going back to 2000 in which offenders owed a total of around $110 million, said Oklahoma County Special Judge Donald Easter.
The nonpayment of court penalties creates a dilemma for judges, who must decide whether to throw offenders back in jail or prison, try to work out a new payment plan or reduce the bill.
State Supreme Court Vice Chief Justice Douglas Combs said sometimes the law has no choice but to jail those who refuse.Tighter budgets for courts have intensified efforts to collect the debt. The Oklahoma County Sheriff's Office hired a collections agency to go after unpaid fines and fees several years ago. Since October, the court has increased the number of bench warrants it issues for failure to pay, from an average 1,000 to 4,000 warrants a month, Easter said.
“They’re there because of their own actions. While you may be sympathetic to their plight, there’s still an obligation to fulfill the requirements of their punishment,” Combs said.
Tulsa defense attorney Allen Smallwood said he believes too many offenders are being locked up for unpaid fines. “It’s almost like a debtor’s prison,” he said.
Some ex-inmates feel trapped. Homer Stephens, of Oklahoma City, was struggling to pay his fines and fees. Then he took a gamble, trying to force the system to let him get on with life. He wasn’t sure the move would work.
Stephens was one of those who, in trying to pay his fines, only saw them go higher.
In early 2009, Stephens pleaded guilty to petty larceny and public drunkenness in Garfield County, earning him a six-month suspended sentence. The court also ordered him to pay about $400 in fees and restitution.
Stephens said he was a “bad actor” during that time, also getting municipal fines in Del City and more than 20 fines in Oklahoma City for public drunkenness and other infractions.
“I’m not going to lie,” Stephens said. “Before, I was notorious. I wouldn’t pay fines.”
In 2010, Stephens was sentenced in Oklahoma County to two years in prison for possession of marijuana.
Meanwhile, Garfield County issued a bench warrant for Stephens for failure to pay. It rejected his request to postpone payment because he was in prison, court records show.
In 2011, a more chastened and humbled Stephens was released from prison and went to Exodus House in Oklahoma City, which assists released inmates.
He immediately tried to set up payment plans with counties and cities to which he owed fines and fees. But there was a problem: Oklahoma City wanted its money right away – more than $2,000 stemming from the multitude of fines, Stephens said.
Each time Stephens would pay off an Oklahoma City court fine, every 30 days, a $25 late fee would be added to the remaining fines, he said. With unpaid tickets totaling thousands of dollars, each getting $25 tacked on per month, plus the charges he owed to Garfield and Oklahoma counties, Stephens said it nearly impossible to make a dent in the amount he owed.
“It’s a no-win situation,” Stephens said. “There’s no possible way a man can do it … At that moment, I knew I needed to make a move to free up some money so I could have a future, instead of always going down there to give them their money. So I prayed on it.”
That’s when Stephens got an idea. He said he went to Oklahoma City Municipal Court and asked a judge to put him in jail.
Oklahoma law allows inmates in some cases to serve time in jail in lieu of paying court costs, fines and fees.
“I went down to the courthouse and said, ‘I’m not leaving. You’re going to lock me up in this county jail because I’m not paying you any more money,’” Stephens said. “I just went to the judge and I just told him, ‘Hey, I can’t do this. I’m turning myself in.’”
Initially, the judge and court clerk did not want to let him fulfill his obligation this way, Stephens said. But eventually the judge allowed it and waived several of the tickets because of Stephens’ efforts. Stephens went to jail for 19 days, and the fines for non-payment stopped.
He emerged clear of his debt to Oklahoma City.
Stephens said he was lucky. His employer was willing to work with him to help resolve the situation, and Exodus House helped him with housing.
“If you don’t get a job paying at least $10 an hour, then it’s impossible for a person to pay those tickets. It’s just impossible,” he said. “ I was lucky. I had a good employer … I still had a job.”
A Judge’s Discretion
Oklahoma courts are required to hold “Rule 8” hearings before or during sentencing to determine an offender’s ability to pay court penalties and fees.
Judge Easter, who handles Oklahoma County District Court’s cost docket, said he is willing to work with those who are having financial difficulties. Easter said that rather than go through all their financial records, he usually just asks them what they can afford to pay each month.
“I don’t see any reason to be harsh,” Easter said. “I don’t think it’s going to do any good, except every once in awhile where someone’s obviously playing it.”
Jailing someone for failure to pay doesn’t make sense from a long-term financial standpoint, Easter said.
“What is the point of me putting somebody in jail for costs and charges when the county has to pay $42.50 a day to keep that guy over there?” Easter said. “Putting them in there doesn’t motivate them because they’ve been there before … All I’m doing is costing the county money, and I don’t want to take up beds with cost prisoners.”
Easter, who used to be a credit manager, said setting court costs and fines is a balancing act. The payments can’t be too high or the offender won’t pay; the resources invested in getting payment can’t be more than what will be collected.
In addition, the process for paying court debts isn’t convenient, Easter said. For one thing, courthouses close at 5 p.m., which means offenders must pay fines during typical working hours.
“Name a business with 77 locations (one in each county) that has no way for you to make a payment on your credit account after 5 p.m. on Friday. How long would that business be in business?” Easter said.
“The first thing you learn in the credit business is don’t stand in the way of your debtor giving you money.”
In recent years, more sheriff’s offices have begun contracting with collection agencies. More courts are allowing people to pay with credit cards and have focused more on cost dockets and Rule 8 hearings, said Justice Combs. In Cleveland and Canadian counties, the court is launching a pilot program to allow for receiving payments online. Also under consideration is a kiosk system with locations around the state for making payments, he said.
These efforts have been made partly because of less funding from the legislature, Combs said.
“It forced us to try and collect as much as we could from those we could in order to fund the judiciary,” he said.
According to a 2012 report from the Council of State Court Administrators, funding by the Legislature for district courts in Oklahoma fell by 60 percent between 2008 and 2012.
“We’re being funded by the Legislature based on an estimate of what we can collect, which I understand, but it’s kind of like trying to run a university hospital on the income from the emergency room,” Easter said.
Stephenson estimates that since he left prison, he has paid about $8,000 in fines, fees and other court costs to Oklahoma and Garfield counties, Oklahoma City and Midwest City.
He has been able to hold a construction job that pays well and owns a house and cars. He also got married.
Around $740 owed to Oklahoma County now stands between him and freedom from his debt to the state’s criminal justice system. On the December night when he gave an interview to Oklahoma Watch, his wife offered to pay off the remaining balance.
“I told her, ‘No, I’m going to pay them like I have been paying them,’” Stephens said. “Don’t get me wrong, I understand that I have a responsibility here, and I am paying. But at the same time, there’s no reason I should tie up almost $1,000 of her money to pay for something I did in the past.”
Stephens said turning his life around was not easy. Many others in the system don’t have the same opportunities, support or luck.
Once the final bill is paid, Stephens said, he will truly be a free man.
“It’s going to be a big relief,” he said. “Not being obligated to pay that money, it frees up a man’s mind.”
Corrrection: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the Oklahoma County District Court had hired a collections agency to collect unpaid fines and fees. The collections agency was hired by the Oklahoma County Sheriff's Office.
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