The Cost Trap: How Excessive Fees Lock Oklahomans Into the Criminal Justice System without Boosting State Revenue: Part I
January 31st, 2017
Part I. Fees have grown for every type of crime
As a result of their involvement in the criminal justice system, criminal defendants are charged a litany of fines and fees by the courts, county sheriffs, and District Attorneys. At this point it’s important to define the distinction between fines and fees. “Fines” are monetary sanctions imposed by the courts meant to punish the offender, while “fees” are amounts charged to defendants to share the costs related to their cases. Most criminal fines have been only modestly increased in recent years, and in many cases they have decreased in value due to inflation. However, the number and amount of fees has expanded significantly.
The growth of fees has resulted in Oklahomans paying much more in connection to their court cases now than they did a quarter of a century ago. It’s also created an odd dynamic in which the legal punishment for a crime – the fine – has become less punitive, while being convicted of a crime creates a financial burden that is far beyond many Oklahomans’ ability to pay. Here’s how this dynamic has played out in different kinds of criminal cases; the following costs were pulled from public records available on the Oklahoma State Court Network’s Docket Search.
Since 1992, the cost of a ticket for driving 20 miles over the speed limit has increased by $158, or nearly 150 percent. While one might justify raising a fine for violations by arguing that harsher punishments for speeding would improve public safety, that logic does not appear to be driving the rise in costs of speeding tickets. The fine for speeding 20mph over the limit was $30 in 1992; in 2016 it had increased by only $5. However, a speeding ticket for the same offense carried 15 fees that totaled $235.25 in 2016 compared to just six fees, adding up to $67 in 1992.
On June 10, 1992, J.S. was pulled over and given a ticket for speeding 20 miles per hour over the speed limit, 75 in a 55 zone. His fine for the violation was $30, as specified by state statute. But the ticket he received said he owed $107, which included six fees, detailed in Table A.1
Just over 24 years later, N.G. was ticketed for the same offense. The fine was $35. However, J.A. was charged 10 more fees on top of the six fees that J.S. paid in 1992. The new fees cover items like courthouse security, child abuse prevention, and vehicles for the Department of Public Safety.2 Although the fine had barely changed, N.G. owed $265.25, nearly two and a half times what J.S. paid.
One surprising result of the accumulation of fees is that the doubling of fines in school, tollbooth, and construction zones has become a much less significant sanction. Out of all the costs set out on Table A, only the fine of $35 is doubled in a construction zone, so the total cost of the ticket increases only about 11.3 percent, from $265.25 to $300.25.
While traffic violations have seen a steep increase in fees, even more fees have been added for more serious offenses. For example, public defender fees are added to criminal misdemeanor and felony defendants if they cannot afford to hire legal representation; about 80 percent of defendants fall into this category.
A sample DUI case from 1992 shows total fines and fees of $607, which included a $200 fine, $149 in court costs, and a $200 fee for a Victims Compensation Assessment.3 This misdemeanor offender was also charged a fee to be released on bond, in addition to the fee paid to the bonding service. A 2015 misdemeanor DUI case cost $1,528, about two and a half times more than in 1992, though the fine is the same.4
Court costs more than doubled to $333. Two new fees – for the Department of Public Safety Patrol Vehicle Fund and the Trauma Care Assistance Fund – together added $255 to the defendant’s costs, and the Court Clerk collected an additional 10 percent, totaling $31.50, on fees that are passed on to other agencies. Seven other minor fees, ranging from $3 to $50, cumulatively add another $96 to the total.
In many cases, especially those that involve more serious crimes, several charges are brought in the same case. Because fines and fees are assessed separately on each charge, the minor fees are multiplied and become much more significant.
A case in Comanche County demonstrates the extremely punitive nature of Oklahoma’s drug laws, both in sentencing and the resulting financial obligations. Charged with one count of Cultivation of a Controlled Substance and one count of Unlawful Possession of Drug Paraphernalia, B.R. pled guilty in September 2015.5 For a single felony conviction of Cultivation of a Controlled Substance (Possession of Drug Paraphernalia is a misdemeanor offense), the defendant was sentenced to 10 years of incarceration and 10 years of probation.
His financial obligations total $4,516. Outside of Oklahoma and Tulsa Counties, where indigent defendants are represented by county public defender offices, counsel is provided by the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System (OIDS). Applying for OIDS representation carries a fee of $40. Defendants who are convicted are charged a “cost of representation” fee ranging from $150 for a guilty plea on a misdemeanor case to $1,000 for a felony conviction at a jury trial.6 B.R. will also pay $40 per month for two years for supervision by the District Attorney’s office after he is released from prison.
Critics have described DA supervision as a conflict of interest, because DA offices depend significantly on the revenue generated by these fees. Oklahoma County Chief Public Defender Bob Ravitz, for example, points out that “When you have the district attorney supervising, they’re the ones who decide to file charges or not. They have a vested financial interest if that person is convicted or not and put on probation.”7 Many District Attorneys agree; Oklahoma District Attorneys Council Assistant Executive Director Trent Baggett commented, “Would it be a whole lot better system if we were funded entirely by one entity where we didn’t have to rely on these additional funds? Absolutely. Absolutely, it would be great if we could do that, but you know what? That’s the hand we’re dealt.” This dynamic is described in further detail in Part III.
In many counties, county jails charge defendants a daily fee while they are incarcerated. For defendants who are denied bail or unable to gather the money to bond out, these fees can easily multiply into several thousand dollars as they wait for their case to be resolved. Some counties, including Oklahoma County, administer these costs through the sheriff’s office. Inmates receive a bill for their incarceration costs as they leave the jail, so their total bills are not publicly available in court records. The current rate in Oklahoma County is $32 per day, so for example a defendant arrested for felony drug possession released after 92 days would be charged $2,944.8
Longer stays quickly add up to large amounts of debt. A 19-year-old man in Sequoyah County was arrested in 2015 for First Degree Burglary and four other charges; he was held in the county jail from June 20, 2015 to May 3, 2016.9 He was charged $22 per day for his stay, totaling $7,018. After he serves his seven year sentence (85 percent of which he is required to spend in prison, rather than on parole), he will face $8,670.50 in legal financial obligations and at least 10 years of probation. On his release, he will also have a felony record that will make finding steady, well-paying employment needed to meet his financial obligations extremely difficult.
Jail fees are perhaps the most pernicious financial obligation because they add up quickly and because they disproportionately affect those who cannot afford to bond out of jail as they await disposition of their case. Further, inmates appear to bear the brunt of struggling county budgets as policymakers look for ways to fund jails, and local sheriff’s offices have increased these fees without much initial oversight. In March 2016, an Oklahoma County judge lowered the daily incarceration fee from $44.51 to $32, criticizing the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Department for its inability to explain the reasoning behind the higher charge.10
- Oklahoma State Courts Network (OSCN) case record, http://www.oscn.net/dockets/GetCaseInformation.aspx?db=tulsa&number=TR-1992-5351
- OSCN case record, http://www.oscn.net/dockets/GetCaseInformation.aspx?db=tulsa&number=TR-2016-18545
- OSCN case record, http://www.oscn.net/dockets/GetCaseInformation.aspx?db=oklahoma&number=CM-1992-1237
- OSCN case record, http://www.oscn.net/dockets/GetCaseInformation.aspx?db=oklahoma&number=CM-2015-1905
- OSCN case record, http://www.oscn.net/dockets/GetCaseInformation.aspx?db=comanche&cmid=424157
- 22 OK Stat § 22-1355.14 (2015)
- Jaclyn Cosgrove, Oklahoma Watch, “Supervision Program Earns Millions,” December 12, 2011, http://oklahomawatch.org/2011/12/12/supervision-program-earns-millions/
- As of 2009, the median time from arrest to adjudication in the 75 largest counties for drug offenses was 92 days. Bureau of Justice Statistics,
“Felony Defendants in Large Urban Counties, 2009 – Statistical Tables,” December 2013, http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/fdluc09.pdf
- On Demand Court Records, http://www1.odcr.com/detail?court=068-&casekey=068-CF++1500423
- Nolan Clay, The Oklahoman, “Judge slashes cost of stay at Oklahoma County jail,” March 12, 2016, http://newsok.com/article/5484676