[Download the full report as a pdf.]

Part IV. Recommendations

Oklahoma legislators should take steps to reduce the damage of excessive and unaffordable legal financial obligations, and strong reform ideas have aleady emerged in the Legislature. In 2016, the Justice Reform Task Force, a group of stakeholders assembled by Governor Mary Fallin, submitted recommendations to address various aspects of the criminal justice system, including “more cost effective, evidence based sentencing and supervision practices.”1 While the Task Force has not released its findings at the time of publication, Sen. Greg Treat, who participated in the discussions, has introduced legislation in 2017 that would make major changes to the administration of court costs. Senate Bill 689 includes provisions for consolidating fines, fees, and costs among all courts; limiting payment plans to 10 percent of discretionary income; and piloting a program that waives legal financial obligations for those who comply with supervision requirements after two years. These proposals are a strong response to the problem of court debt, and lawmakers could make great strides by approving them in the coming legislative session.

These ideas should be put into practice and supplemented by the recommendations of The Costs of Justice, a report by the Lobeck Taylor Community Advocacy Clinic at the University of Tulsa College of Law.2 There are four main areas of reform that lawmakers should consider, starting with the coming legislative session.

Strengthen and Standardize Rule 8 Proceedings

As explained in Part II, Oklahoma law already mandates that courts determine a defendant’s ability to pay through Rule 8 hearings, but the process is vague and implemented inconsistently across the state. The Task Force smartly recommends limiting payment plans to 10 percent of discretionary income, and lawmakers should ensure such guidelines are properly and consistently implemented by strengthening Rule 8 in the following ways, as recommended by The Costs of Justice:

  • Defining “poverty” and “disability” in statute through income guidelines and public program eligibility;
  • Requiring judicial training, issuing bench cards and manuals, and creating a standard form for Rule 8 hearings; and
  • Allowing Rule 8 hearings via videoconference.

The Texas Judicial Council approved rules in August 2016 that put into place similar payment plan guidelines. The fiscal note anticipates no significant costs to state government to implement the rules, likely because collections are very low and, like Oklahoma, most goes uncollected under current practices.3

Improve Court Financial Infrastructure and Reporting Requirements

In recommending the consolidation of fines, fees, and costs from District and Municipal Courts, both the Task Force and The Costs of Justice acknowledge the need to correct major infrastructure deficits in the Administrative Office of the Courts. The Legislature should ensure the full effectiveness of the AOC by:

  • Directing and funding the AOC to establish a centralized system to collect and distribute costs;
  • Implementing a case management system to consolidate and manage accounts across jurisdictions; and
  • Establishing periodic reporting requirements or a statewide audit that produce statistics on the total financial obligations imposed on defendants, the amount of outstanding financial obligations, and the results of ability-to-pay hearings. The Justice Reform Task Force proposes a two-year study on the percentage of court costs actually collected; the reliance of state agencies on fee revenue; and recommendations for reform. This is another worthy – and perhaps more politically feasible – step toward greater transparency.

Court Debt Forgiveness and Amnesty Pilot Programs

Further recommendations by the Task Force and The Costs of Justice include piloting new approaches to court debt. The Task Force recommends forgiving court debt based participation in a workforce development program or completion of supervision requirements, both of which would provide strong incentives to reenter the workforce. Beyond these worthy ideas, The Costs of Justice suggests a court debt amnesty program that “encourage[s] compliance with payment of overdue [debt] by offering criminal defendants partial debt forgiveness in exchange for lump-sum payments of some percentage of their court fees.”4 Such programs have provided one-time increases in revenue and led to suspended drivers’ licenses being restored, and the extra revenue could be used to fund the infrastructure improvements outlined above.

Limiting Collateral Consequences of Failure to Pay

Beyond the above reforms, lawmakers should confront the collateral consequences of failure to pay fines and fees, especially the problems of debtor’s prisons and license revocation. In his testimony before a House interim study in October, Judge Thad Balkman explained that Cleveland County had a “catch and release” policy when bench warrants are issued for failure to pay, resulting in a trip to the police station but no time in jail.5 He noted that the only jurisdiction that uses his county’s jail for failure to pay warrants is the City of Norman, which must reimburse the county $42 per day per inmate.

This is another instance of the arbitrary enforcement of the law based on jurisdiction; the consequences of an arrest for failure to pay should not vary so drastically. Lawmakers should recognize the inefficient and self-defeating nature of this practice, and make clear that failure to pay fines should not lead to jail time, even to await a court date, by issuing a summons rather than warrant for failure to pay. Oklahoma City is implementing a system to alert officers when an outstanding municipal warrant is for costs only, and ending jail bookings for that purpose. Such a system should be adopted for district court cost warrants as well, as recommended by the Vera Institute to the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber Criminal Justice Task Force.6

Finally, the practice of revoking or suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay is a deeply self-defeating measure that only further marginalizes indigent defendants who must drive in order to get to work and take care of their families. At the least, lawmakers should ensure license suspension occurs only after a substantiated determination of willful failure to pay. Even better, license suspension should be decoupled from court debt entirely.

Footnotes

  1. Gov. Mary Fallin, “Executive Order 2016-24,” July 8, 2016, https://www.sos.ok.gov/documents/executive/1045.pdf
  2. Kymberli Heckenkemper, John Kristjansson, and Cody Melton, “The Costs of Justice,” January 2017, http://tinyurl.com/CostsofJustice
  3. Supreme Court of Texas, “Final Approval Of Amendments To The Texas Rules Of Civil Procedure And The Texas Rules Of Appellate Procedure And Of A Form Statement Of Inability To Afford Payment Of Court Costs,” August 31, 2016, http://www.txcourts.gov/media/1435934/169122.pdf
  4. Kymberli Heckenkemper, John Kristjansson, and Cody Melton, “The Costs of Justice,” January 2017, http://tinyurl.com/CostsofJustice
  5. Interim Study 16-056, October 4, 2016, http://www.okhouse.gov/committees/showinterimstudies.aspx
  6. Nancy Fishman, et al., “Report to the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber Criminal Justice Task Force,” December 2016, http://www.smartsafeokco.com/Websites/okcountycriminaljustice/images/okcchamber_VERA_report_12-14-16.pdf

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