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Oklahoma's Crime-Funded Court System Leaves Many Offenders With Substantial Debt

Feb 16, 2015

For more than two decades, Oklahoma has increasingly turned to fines and fees from court cases to pay for the court system itself. An investigation between KGOU and Oklahoma Watch called Prisoners of Debt reveals that as many inmates regain their freedom, they’re still imprisoned by mountains of debt.

Oklahoma Watch reporters M. Scott Carter and Clifton Adcock teamed up with KGOU’s Kate Carlton Greer to discuss the debt former prisoners face after leaving prison and how the state’s crime-funded court system has evolved over the past two decades.

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When a defendant is charged with breaking the law, the debt starts piling up. Depending on the crime, an offender’s bill can be overwhelming.

“Once they’re found guilty, they’re presented with this bill, often running thousands or tens of thousands of dollars,” Adcock says.

Each offense a defendant faces and is found guilty of comes with its own set of fines and fees. These range from an $11 courthouse security fee to $5 for fingerprinting. In many cases, the fees outweigh the original crime.

Vice Chief Justice Douglas Combs from the State Supreme Court says the added costs have gotten worse over the years.

“The example that you hear all the time is a speeding ticket. I mean, 1 to 10 miles over the speed limit, the minimum fine and cost for that is $188.50. The fine itself is $10,” Combs says.

In addition to court costs, fines and fees, offenders also pay a per diem rate while they sit in jail. These daily charges vary in each county, but typically run $40 to $50 per day. The charge is built to help recoup the cost of keeping a defendant in jail, but Carter says the daily amount can grow to be insurmountable.

“We actually got a copy of the bill sent by the Oklahoma County Sheriff to an offender who had been in jail for more than 280 days, and the per diem alone was more than $11,000,” Carter says. “So the charges stack up really, really quickly.”

Reigning in Taxes

In 1992, voters approved State Question 640, which made it nearly impossible for lawmakers to raise taxes.

“State Question 640 was in response to a fight over an education bill which included a tax increase,” Carter says. “Once that passed, every lawmaker at the Capitol realized, ‘We’re never going to see another tax increase in Oklahoma.’ So they went to Plan B, which was an increase in fines and fees.”

Since the passage of the state question, 40 fees have been added to the court fee schedules for criminals, including fees for executive agencies and non-public safety related agencies.

And the money the courts collect doesn't just stay within the judiciary. From 2007 to 2014, roughly one-third of the amount collected went to other agencies, like the Tourism and Wildlife Departments.

“You see a lot of it too funding non-law enforcement, non-criminal justice agencies,” Adcock says.

Tough on Crime

Without an adequate revenue stream to fund several state agencies, M. Scott Carter says legislators turned to an easy target.

“It’s very easy to sell an increase in a fine or a fee if you say, ‘Well, the person convicted of this crime will have to pay it,’” Carter says.

But the balance between court collections and court appropriations is far from equal.

“The reality is we fund a great deal of our criminal justice system on the back on the individuals who commit crimes,” says former Oklahoma House of Representatives Speaker Kris Steele.

While it’s easy to sell a "tough on crime" mentality to the public, Steele argues it’s not the most financially sound approach. The Oklahoma County Court sent over 5,000 cases to collections in January for offenders who failed to pay their debts.

Taking its Toll

Former inmate Robin Wertz left prison with nearly $25,000 in court costs, fines and fees. The stigma of having a drug-related felony conviction made it nearly impossible for her to find a job, and she knew she could make money going by calling up friends on the west coast.

“I remember thinking I might as well call my friends in California and have them bring me some dope and I would start selling dope again,” she says.

She now works as a case manager at Exodus House in Oklahoma City. The prisoner re-entry program provides housing and drug and alcohol counseling to offenders. Wertz also helps participants repay debts, a task that can be daunting for offenders who owe money to multiple counties.

“They can help these people get jobs and save money so they can start paying these fines and fees back,” Carter says.

There are also organizations like The Employment and Education Ministry, or TEEM, in Oklahoma City that help former prisoners find jobs and earn occupational certifications.

But the non-profits can’t serve all of the thousands of offenders leaving Oklahoma prisons each year.

“The ones who do get into those programs are lucky,” Adcock says. “They provide counseling; they provide addiction services; they help you get a job. Otherwise, you’re basically on your own.”

Robin Wertz argues there’s a huge gap between the supply and demand of re-entry programs.

“How many people are we missing? And why can't we be working on doing that? Why can't we do that because that's where the difference is. That's where we can help people,” she says.

Many state agencies are facing budget constraints, including the court system. Clifton Adcock says the result dwindling revenue stream has fallen heavily on offenders’ backs, and he questions the sustainability of the current crime-funded system.

“At some point, something’s got to give,” Adcock says. “You can’t put debt on people who, in a lot of cases aren’t going to pay or choose not to pay, and then expect to steadily fund a good portion of the criminal justice system on that.”

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