Last week Rep. Chris Kannady, R-OKC, Chairman of the Judiciary-Civil Committee, held an interim study hosted by Rep. Danny Williams, R-Seminole, on the issue of excessive court costs, fees, and assessments in criminal cases. When a person is sentenced, in addition to any other punishment, he/she is assessed numerous statutory costs, everything from a $6 law library fee to a $25 courthouse security fee. When they are added up, just the costs on a misdemeanor case might be upwards of $1,000, and a felony, even a nonviolent offense, can be twice that. It’s not unusual for people who are charged with multiple offenses from the same incident to owe thousands in costs, some in the tens of thousands. Supreme Court Administrator Jari Askins said the courts collected nearly $50 million last year for law enforcement and executive agencies plus many more millions for the operation of the courts to make up for lack of appropriations by the legislature.
As part of the collection process, offenders who get behind on their payments are arrested and jailed on “cost” warrants without a hearing on whether they are able to pay. A quick example is a man who was arrested in Tulsa over the Labor Day weekend. He was charged in 2015 with misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia and destruction of evidence. He pled guilty and completed all the conditions of his 18-month deferred sentence in 2017 except for payment of the $1,690 in costs, fees, and assessments. So, in 2017 instead of having the case dismissed and his record expunged, a cost warrant was issued, and he was arrested on Sunday before Labor Day 2021, for failure to pay the costs. His address was listed on jail records as “homeless.”
The issue is not so much whether it’s right or wrong, moral or immoral, to make people who are convicted pay toward the costs of prosecuting and adjudicating their cases. Some would say yes, it’s better to have the person who committed the offense pay for the court and law enforcement system than taxpayers who have committed no offense. Others would say law enforcement and courts exist for the benefit of the public, and it’s not unreasonable to ask taxpayers to tax themselves to pay for the service. But there is an issue, both moral and legal, in arresting and jailing people who are not willfully refusing to pay, but who simply cannot pay.
Beyond that, it’s a matter of balance. So many costs have been piled on they are onerous even to the average person, and they are more so to many others earning little to nothing making it impossible to pay. Only about a third of these costs are ever collected. Most people who can pay do pay, usually immediately or within a reasonable time. But there are thousands of Oklahomans saddled with these court debts for years, often with arrest warrants out on them, keeping them entangled in the court system, unable to be released from probation or clear their records, and unable to move on with their lives.
The system as it exists is self-defeating. Law enforcement spends precious time arresting and processing people they have encountered, usually on a traffic violation or some minor offense, and the court system wastes time and money in a futile attempt to collect the uncollectable from people with no money to pay. It’s easy to recognize that something should be done but relying on fees to pay for law enforcement and courts developed over many years as legislators added the fees and cut appropriations in tight budget years. Now it’s reached a breaking point, and kudos to Chairman Kannady, Rep. Williams, and others who are doing good work to find a solution.