The Cost Trap: How Excessive Fees Lock Oklahomans Into the Criminal Justice System without Boosting State Revenue: Executive Summary


Executive Summary

Tens of thousands of Oklahomans enter the justice system each year and come out with thousands of dollars in legal financial obligations. For poor Oklahomans, this debt can amount to most of their family’s income, and it often leads to a cycle of incarceration and poverty. The system does nothing to improve public safety but incurs high costs to law enforcement, jails, and the courts. Lawmakers should reduce the financial burdens of the criminal justice system for poor defendants, and they can do that without jeopardizing critical sources of revenue for state agencies.

Growth of Criminal Court Fees: The costs charged to criminal defendants have skyrocketed in recent years as the Legislature has added or increased fees that fund various state agencies. In many cases, costs have more than doubled. A speeding ticket for driving 20 mph over the speed limit has increased almost 150 percent since 1992, from $107 to $250. Felony and misdemeanor costs multiply with each charge, often totaling in the thousands of dollars for a single case. Jail fees alone often total in the thousands of dollars in jurisdictions where counties charge inmates a daily rate.

Defendants’ Inability to Pay: Because most defendants are economically disadvantaged, very little criminal court debt is actually collected. About 80 percent of criminal defendants are indigent and eligible for a public defender, and jail inmates typically make less than half the income of their peers even before their arrest. A judge in Oklahoma County estimates that only 5 to 11 percent of criminal court debt is collected. Despite this fact, those who can’t pay are repeatedly arrested, jailed, and brought before a judge, at great expense to the state.

Fine and Fee Revenue in Agency Budgets: Fine and fee revenue contributes to many agencies’ budgets. The District Courts and the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training, for example, each receive over 80 percent of their funding from fines and fees. However, District Court financial records show that criminal case collections for the courts decreased slightly between 2003 and 2015, while civil case collections nearly doubled. This indicates that little if any new revenue can be raised from new fees in the criminal justice system.

Recommendations: Because such a small percentage of criminal court debt is collected, reducing financial burdens on poor defendants would likely have little, if any, effect on fee revenue for the state. Lawmakers should reform court collections practices to ensure a standardized process for ability to pay, end incarceration and license suspension for failure to pay, and improve court administrative infrastructure to consolidate and collect payments. Instituting court debt forgiveness and amnesty programs may improve collections and offer temporary boosts in revenue.

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Ryan Gentzler worked at OK Policy from January 2016 until November 2022. He last served as the organization's Reserach Director and oversaw Open Justice Oklahoma. He began at OK Policy as an analyst focusing on criminal justice issues, including sentencing, incarceration, court fines and fees, and pretrial detention. Open Justice Oklahoma grew out of Ryan’s groundbreaking analysis of court records, which was used to inform critical policy debates. A native Nebraskan, he holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Oklahoma and a BA in Institutions and Policy from William Jewell College. He served as an OK Policy Research Fellow in 2014-2015.

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