Fixing Oklahoma’s court fines and fees problem (Capitol Update)

Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville, has spent considerable time working to make the collection of court fines and fees both more efficient and less destructive to the lives of people who are legitimately unable to pay. She held an interim study in her Senate Judiciary Committee in 2019 to begin educating both herself and other Senators about the problem. Then she introduced legislation in 2020 that was short circuited both because of COVID-19 and because it needed more work. During the remainder of 2020 and into 2021, she has continued her work and consultation with stakeholders in the system which has culminated in Senate Bill 951. The bill cleared the Senate last Thursday and will now become the property of Rep. Chris Kannady, R-Oklahoma City, who is the House author and Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

There are a couple things on which nearly everyone seems to agree. The first is that Oklahoma, like several other states, made a mistake through the years by piling the cost of the court system and some executive agencies of government on the backs of offenders who in many cases are unable to pay. The second is that using arrest and incarceration as a means of collection from someone unable to pay is not only wrong but ineffective and counterproductive to the larger purposes of criminal justice.

But the question becomes, beginning from where we are now, how can the state fix the problem? The courts and executive agencies, lacking sufficient appropriated monies, are dependent on the fines and fees to operate. Although only a small percentage that is assessed is ever collected, they need the money that is collected. Appropriations Chairs Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, and Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston, have been looking at ways to appropriate sufficient funding to the courts and executive agencies in order to eliminate some of the fees they depend on. But that takes cash the state has heretofore not had. Perhaps, with the budget picture looking better, some of that can begin soon.

In the meantime, the challenge is to make the process work to eliminate arrest and jail as a means of collection for people who are unable to pay. SB 951 prohibits arrest and incarceration until the ability to pay has been judicially established, and it provides for a system to keep the court informed of people’s contact information until their fines and fees are paid. It gives offenders several opportunities to show the court their inability to pay. 

Before a warrant that could result in incarceration is issued, a defendant will have mail, email, or text, and in-person notice to appear for a hearing on ability to pay. The bill also establishes guidelines for judges to determine ability to pay and gives courts the authority to provide meaningful payment plans or to waive fines and costs where it is shown the defendant is unable to pay. In addition, SB 951 provides penalties for people who are found to be able to pay, but who refuse to do so. The bill will likely be amended in the House, but hopefully it will make it to the governor’s desk for signature.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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