HB 2259 will revolutionize processing and collecting of court financial obligations owed by defendants (Capitol Update)

Despite repeated efforts over the past few years, not a lot was accomplished during this last session toward the repeal of various costs of the criminal legal system that are imposed on defendants in criminal cases. Costs imposed include various state judicial and executive branch and county fees including everything from the county law library fee to the automated fingerprint information system fee for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. 

Fees, fines and costs often run into the thousands of dollars for defendants to pay, many of whom are already struggling financially, causing them to remain entangled in the system. And this does not count other financial obligations like supervision fees, drug testing fees, various treatment fees and electronic monitoring fees, etc., that must be paid by defendants.

But the news isn’t all bad. House Bill 2259 by Rep. Danny Sterling, R-Tecumseh, and Sen. Brent Howard, R-Altus, will revolutionize the processing and collecting of court financial obligations owed by defendants. The new system was developed by the “Cost Administration Implementation Committee” composed of district judges, municipal judges, court clerks, county sheriffs, advocates for defendants and the Administrative Director of the Courts. 

It is intended to:

  1. more proficiently collect court debt from defendants who can and should be paying
  2. eliminate uncollectable debt early
  3. avoid the arrest and incarceration of people who have not been judicially determined able to pay, and
  4. avoid continued civil rights lawsuits by providing due process of law in the collection process. 

 The new law, which will go into effect Nov. 1, provides an opportunity immediately after sentencing for defendants who are unable to pay to request a “cost hearing” where a judge will determine their ability to pay and will be able to waive all or part of the costs that are beyond the defendant’s ability to pay. It also allows defendants, if their circumstances change later, to ask for additional cost hearings.

The law will require the hearing judge to consider individual and household income, household living expenses, number of dependents, assets, child support obligations, physical or mental health conditions that diminish the ability to generate income or manage resources, additional case-related expenses like supervision fees and treatment fees, etc. mentioned earlier, and other factors that are relevant in determining the defendant’s ability to pay. 

The bill also exempts child support income, payments received from federal, state, or tribal government need-based or disability assistance programs, and assets exempt from bankruptcy from being considered in determining the ability to pay. In addition, it creates a presumption that persons who are designated totally disabled, those receiving various government need-based financial support, or whose total income is under 150% of the federal poverty level are eligible for full or partial waiver of costs. 

By taking all or part of these obligations off the books early, the time and effort of judges, court clerks and law enforcement can be devoted to collecting from those who are financially able but who refuse or neglect to pay. Rather than thousands of cost-related warrants being issued throughout the state for the arrest of defendants who will never be able to pay, the new collection process for those who are delinquent will begin with a summons to appear for a cost hearing mailed by the court clerk. 

The defendant can either pay the amount owed or appear for the hearing. If he or she fails to receive the summons or fails to appear a “cost cite and release warrant” will be issued. Upon encountering a law enforcement officer, the defendant will receive a personal “warning and notice” to either pay the amount owed or appear at the office of the Court Clerk within 10 days. If the defendant fails to appear, a “cost arrest warrant” will be issued for the defendant’s arrest. Finally, if a defendant is found by a judge to have “willfully” failed to pay, he or she can be jailed for failure to pay. 

Every county in the state will be required to fully utilize and participate in the court cost compliance program through contracts with the county sheriffs and “court cost compliance liaisons” beginning Nov. 1. Cases “shall” be referred to the court cost compliance program no more than 60 days after the court has issued a cost arrest warrant and “may” be referred 60 days after issuance of a cost cite and release warrant unless the defendant pays the amount owed on the court financial obligations or an installment due.

It remains true the state should be appropriating more funding for its criminal legal system rather than imposing burdensome costs and fees on those caught up in the system, if for no other reason than the cost is often borne by the offender’s family. But until legislators take on that responsibility, HB 2259 will offer relief and an exit ramp from the system to thousands who are unable to pay. 


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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