The beginning of this year’s legislative session brought hope that lawmakers would begin to scale back justice system fines and fees that have grown enormously in size and number over the past two decades. Instead, the problem is likely to get worse: two last-minute bills would hike justice system fees significantly, while legislation to reduce fees has been watered down to the point of mere symbolism. Rather than rising to the occasion to reform justice system funding, legislators continue to shift the cost of government onto those who can least afford it.
Last week, legislators introduced two bills that will significantly increase fees for Oklahomans involved in both civil and criminal court cases. SB 1610 would double court fees for all criminal cases, both misdemeanor and felony. Court fees would increase from $10 to $20 on traffic cases, from $15 to $30 on misdemeanor and juvenile cases, and from $25 to $50 on DUI and felony cases. It’s expected to bring in an extra $2.2 million per year to the District Attorney Revolving Fund.
The second measure, HB 3220, would increase the fee for alternative dispute mediation from $2 to $7 and require court clerks to assess a 15 percent administrative charge on all fees collected for other agencies. It also increases the filing fee for divorce, custody, alimony, and other proceedings from $143 to $183. Together, these fee increases are projected to add $11.2 million to the District Court Revolving Fund.
Yesterday, HB 3220 narrowly failed on the House floor, with many legislators objecting that they didn’t know what the courts would need because they still hadn’t seen a budget. Even while debating for the bill, Rep. Chris Kannaday (R-Oklahoma City) acknowledged that the courts have been “collecting these fees from people who can’t afford to pay them…that’s the system we have at this point in time.” Nevertheless, legislative leaders plan to bring the bill back for another vote today.
By further hiking fees, these bills would exacerbate the already-large debts that many Oklahomans face after their involvement with the justice system. An extra $10 to $25 in a total court bill of thousands of dollars may not seem significant, but it’s precisely these types of incremental increases that have allowed the problem to grow to its current size. There are 63 separate justice system fees on the books in Oklahoma, compared to just 23 in 1992. Thousands go to jail each year because they can’t pay these exorbitant costs.
Meanwhile, a bill that offered hope to beginning addressing this problem at the beginning of the session has been stripped of its most meaningful provision. HB 3160 by House Speaker Jeff Hickman would have been a strong first step to reduce the financial burden for those coming out of prison by reducing most fines and fees 3 percent for every month served in prison and allow judges to waive or reduce them if they make regular payments for 24 months after release. Citing budget difficulties, Speaker Hickman removed the automatic reduction provision. Without the automatic reductions, any relief for those who owe will be entirely dependent on the discretion of the court that relies on those same fees for its operations.
Former Lieutenant Governor Jari Askins, who is now the Administrator of the Courts, testified during a committee hearing for HB 3220 that the courts are on the financial brink and that the proposed fee increases are critical to simply pay the bills for their operations. Several committee members acknowledged that increasing fees is a poor way to fund courts and expressed a hope for better funding solutions in the future.
Lawmakers, however, had plenty of options to find new revenue this session, and with devastating budget cuts looming, they had as good a chance as they’ll ever get to pursue significant, lasting tax code reforms. Instead, they are cobbling together money by slashing tax credits for working families, increasing justice system fees, and cutting agency budgets. While lawmakers pat themselves on the back for avoiding the deepest possible cuts to some key agencies, they are moving decisively backward on an issue that they claimed was a priority just a few months ago.