Eliminate justice-related fees and invest in Oklahoma’s justice system

When Oklahomans become involved in the justice system, they can quickly accrue massive debt in the form of fees. These fees are collected by the courts and are used to fund essential parts of Oklahoma’s criminal justice system like law enforcement training, public defenders, and the operations of courts themselves. This funding strategy hurts justice-involved Oklahomans, especially those at a financial disadvantage. It also fails to fully fund these services as only a relatively small portion of these fees end up being collected on an irregular schedule. When these programs suffer from an unstable budget, our communities suffer as well. If Oklahoma’s lawmakers are serious about improving public safety, they should focus their efforts on eliminating justice-related fees and fines. Doing so would help justice-involved Oklahomans and improve public safety, provide stable funding for essential public safety services, and would be a cost-effective investment for our justice system.

Exorbitant fees hurt justice-involved Oklahomans and reduce public safety

Eliminating unfair court fees would have a substantially positive impact on justice-involved Oklahomans. Eighty percent of defendants are considered indigent, or unable to afford legal counsel. Analysis of court debt in Oklahoma and Tulsa counties shows that the poorest neighborhoods have the highest debt per capita. Disparities don’t only affect urban Oklahoma; further analysis shows that Oklahoma’s residents in rural counties face higher court fees, per capita, than people who live in urban counties. In both rural and urban counties, the court fees system hurts poor Oklahomans disproportionately. In Oklahoma, 1 in 3 workers makes less than a living wage, which is around $19 an hour, meaning that everyday families are struggling to get by. This financial hardship is felt especially by previously incarcerated people, who earn 40 percent less annually than their peers.

Court fees have collateral effects beyond justice-involved people. Families quite often experience the negative effects of justice-related fees alongside their justice-involved family members. In nearly 2 out of 3 cases, family members of justice-involved people carry the primary burden of paying court costs, often forgoing rent, medical bills, and other necessities to help cover their loved one’s fees. Further, justice-involved people can have their driver’s license revoked if they fail to pay their court costs. This impedes their ability to earn a living wage and increases reliance on other family members for transportation. Our communities suffer as a result of fees and fines, as well. Court fees take money out of local economies that would otherwise create jobs and support businesses. Further, court costs can increase recidivism risk for justice-involved people, especially among those already experiencing economic hardship. When people reoffend, often in an attempt to put food on the table and keep a roof over their head, communities become less safe and businesses are harmed. Oklahoma’s system of court fees and fines often decreases public safety by criminalizing poverty.

In recent years, lawmakers have taken some steps to alleviate the burden that fees place on justice-involved Oklahomans. Bills like House Bill 2259 (2023) which helps eliminate individuals’ unpayable court debt and HB 1795 (2021) that restores driving privileges to people who make minimum payments on their court debt have had significant impacts on both individuals and the justice system at large. These measures will allow people to maintain a stable job, transport themselves to buy food, and keep their money to pay for necessities. Individuals will face fewer barriers to successful re-entry and can better avoid incarceration for failure to pay. However, these changes only address the symptoms caused by Oklahoma’s burdensome fees and fines system. Lawmakers must eliminate fees on justice-involved Oklahomans altogether in order to actually address people’s needs and improve public safety.

Fees and fines don’t provide the stable funding our justice system needs

Public safety services like state courts, victim services, law enforcement training, and public defenders are vital to a functioning justice system and require adequate funding to operate effectively. Oklahoma does not appropriate necessary funding for these services from the state’s general revenue fund, however. Instead, the state uses fees and fines to fund significant portions of the annual budgets for these services off the backs of the very people they are meant to serve. Of the fees and fines charged to fund these services, only a fraction of the assessed debt is collected each year; some officials estimate as little as 5 to 11 percent of fees get paid. This lack of collections creates an unstable revenue base for these essential public safety services. A highly volatile revenue source like fees and fines can lead to unforeseen budget shortfalls and limit the ability to respond to shifting needs in the justice system.

Fees and fines are incredibly costly to collect, especially when compared to tax revenue. Oklahoma and other states spend money on a variety of collection activities, including court time to assess fees and address non-payment, law enforcement officers to act on warrants for failure to pay, contracts with debt collection agencies, administrative costs, jail time for individuals who do not pay their debt, and more. Research in Texas and New Mexico shows that jurisdictions spent, on average, 41 cents per dollar collected from fees and fines in 2017. One county in New Mexico went in the red, spending $1.17 for every dollar it collected. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS), on the other hand, only spent 34 cents per hundred dollars it collected in 2017; in Texas, it cost 31 cents per hundred tax dollars collected. Compared to taxes, fees and fines are a remarkably inefficient source of revenue for the state, which further limits how effectively they fund essential public safety and criminal justice services. Moving the financial burden for these services under the full responsibility of the state would provide a more stable and efficient budget for Oklahomans’ public safety infrastructure.

Oklahoma can afford to fund our courts without fees and fines

The fiscal impact analysis of HB 1777 (2023), a comprehensive bill that would have eliminated many executive agency fees, calculated that the bill would have resulted in a roughly $34 million cut to state revenue. Neither HB 1777 nor HB 3131 (2024)-which copied the original language of HB 1777-became law, unfortunately. In the larger picture of the state budget, $34 million would not be as significant a cost as other proposed plans like private school tax credits. The private school tax credit will cost the state up to $255 million a year and only benefit those who don’t need our help. If lawmakers are willing to spend such large amounts of money to help wealthy Oklahomans, they should also be willing to spend the relatively small $34 million to improve public safety by eliminating executive agency fees.

Eliminating justice-related fees is a worthwhile investment in public safety

Fully funding Oklahoma’s courts and public safety agencies without relying on fees and fines would be fiscally responsible. This would be an investment in the justice system that would improve our public safety outcomes and reduce harm to justice-involved Oklahomans, their families, and our communities. The state can afford to cut these fees and provide a stable source of revenue to courts and other important public safety services. Eliminating court fees would serve all Oklahomans, but especially those involved in the justice system. Looking forward to the 2025 legislative session, lawmakers should turn their attention to building on some of the reforms around criminal justice fees and fines and move to eliminate them altogether.


Cole Allen joined OK Policy as a Policy Fellow in August 2022. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a master’s degree in International Studies as well as a bachelor’s degree in International Studies with minors in Religious Studies and Middle Eastern Studies. During college, Cole was a research assistant at the Center for U.S.-China Issues and the Center for Cyber Governance and Policy. He also interned for the U.S. Department of State Diplomat in Residence for the Central United States. Cole hopes that his work at OK Policy will help make Oklahoma a more just and equitable state for all its residents. When he is not working, Cole enjoys cooking Italian food, playing Dungeons and Dragons, and following OU athletics.