Oklahoma’s criminal justice system, like many others across the country, places enormous financial burdens on the people it serves, forcing them to pay for many functions of government that may or may not bear any relation to their case. The thousands of dollars charged to mostly poor defendants can turn into a permanent punishment that creates high barriers to rebuilding a life after involvement in the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, state agencies increasingly depend on the revenue generated by this arrangement as their appropriations from the Legislature have fallen. Legislators unwilling to raise taxes or to reverse tax cuts already enacted have instead created or increased court fees in order to generate new revenue.
The result is a two-tiered justice system, one for the well-off and one for everyone else, in which the courts must act as collections agencies to extract as much money from defendants as possible. To bend the system back toward justice, the courts and lawmakers need a more careful approach to legal financial obligations. No Oklahoman should be jailed for being too poor to pay his or her fines and fees, and judges should be able to adjust debts based on ability to pay without endangering the financial viability of the courts. The current system developed haphazardly over many years, driven by tax cuts and resulting revenue shortfalls, but also by the easy targeting of criminal defendants with new fees. Today state leaders are actively pursuing criminal justice reform to reduce the state’s prison population; for those efforts to succeed, we must also find a way to fund the justice system without placing deep financial burdens on those who can least afford them.
This report was made possible by the support and information provided by many people within the justice system. Jari Askins and Brenda Warren of the Administrative Office of the Courts, Jill Webb of the Tulsa County Public Defenders Office, Trent Baggett of the District Attorneys Council, and many Court Clerk and agency employees across the state provided invaluable information and context for this research. David Blatt and Gene Perry focused and edited the report. We’re also grateful for the people and groups drawing attention to this problem in Oklahoma, including Oklahoma Watch, VOICE OKC, The Tulsa World, and The Oklahoman.