This report examines how criminal justice fines and fees trap Oklahomans in poverty while providing ever-smaller financial benefits to the state. Lawmakers must recognize that our approach to criminal justice debt is unjust and self-defeating, and they must take measures to fund the justice system in a way that does not put impossible financial burdens on the poorest Oklahomans and their families.
The status quo did not come into being overnight. In Oklahoma’s court system, fees associated with every type of case – criminal and civil, felony and misdemeanor – have grown enormously in number and size as legislators seek to fill holes in the state budget. However, the costs to law enforcement, courts, and jails to collect those fees likely outstrip the revenue that is ultimately collected from defendants who simply can’t pay.
Further, there is evidence that collections from criminal fines and fees plateaued long ago. Court financial records show that while collections for the courts from civil cases have doubled since 2003, collections from criminal cases have remained virtually unchanged. The current system is built on the assumption that new criminal justice fees will raise new revenues for critical needs; this data suggests that that assumption is flawed. Further, 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.
This report seeks to bring together the impact of court-related fines and fees, well-reported by various news outlets, with the less-discussed budgetary motivations behind their emergence. Part I of this report provides examples of how fines and fees have changed between 1992 and 2015 in traffic, misdemeanor, and felony cases. Part II examines how collection of fines and fees is implemented at the county level and the consequences to criminal defendants who are unable to pay their debt. Part III examines how state government agencies have come to rely on court fees to fund their operations and discusses the legislative origins of several fees that provide insight into their intended purposes. Part IV outlines some initial recommendations to combat these problems.