It’s time to restructure Oklahoma courts’ wildly inefficient and unjust fines and fees system

Oklahoma courts remain overly reliant on fine and fee revenue to provide funding for basic functions of government. This system creates a dynamic where millions of dollars each year are funneled out of Oklahoma’s poorest communities to fund the agencies that should be focused solely on doing justice. Funding our justice system through fines and fees remains ineffective and traps Oklahomans in a cycle of incarceration and poverty.

For years, the Legislature raised and added fees charged to defendants in criminal cases in order to offset budget shortfalls. Today, district courts and state agencies rely on these fees for operating costs. Local and national media have exposed this problem and the Oklahoma legislature has acknowledged the need for reform. So far, attempts to restructure the system have fallen short. 

Data collected by Open Justice Oklahoma, a program of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, show significant issues with the system. Driven by rising caseloads, the total amount of court fines and fees charged on criminal cases grew by $27 million between 2012 and 2018. However, the increased charges have not translated to more revenue for the courts. No more than 33 percent of court debt has ever been collected in a given year, revealing a deeply inefficient collections system. The courts’ dependence on these fees leads to an overloaded criminal justice system that lacks sufficient funding for critical court functions. It’s long past time we provide adequate state funding to our justice system, and lawmakers can take bold steps to accomplish that this year.

Despite slight decreases in charges, Oklahoma’s excessive fine and fee problem is far from resolved 

Recent criminal justice reforms have made a small dent in the problem of excess fines and fees, but the problem is far from resolved. The passage of SQ 780 in 2016 has led to a slight reduction in fine and fee charges. Court data show that the amount of fines and fees charged to defendants in felony and misdemeanor cases grew steadily from 2012 to peak at $149 million in 2017, then decreased slightly between 2017 and 2018. Although we have yet to see fine and fee reforms passed in the Legislature, other criminal justice reforms explain this decrease. SQ 780 went into effect on July 1, 2017, reversing a decade-long trend of increasing felony filings and causing a marked increase in misdemeanor filings. Because the fines and fees on felony cases are much higher than on misdemeanor cases, the total amount assessed fell in the aftermath of SQ 780.

In a way, SQ 780 was a step in the right direction for fine and fee reform. In order to significantly reduce the financial burden placed Oklahomans and the courts, the Legislature must do more.

Charging large amounts of criminal fines and fees does not increase revenue

Criminal fines and fees are an inefficient way to raise revenue. Earlier reports have speculated that collected funds are only a fraction of the high amounts levied against defendants. The lack of a centralized system to collect and distribute costs has prevented courts from being able to calculate the difference, but our analysis shows that about $630 million in court debt remains outstanding just from the last seven years. In total, the amount of debt to the courts is certainly in the billions of dollars. We have every indication that this debt is uncollectible, but it remains on the books, hanging over the heads of thousands of Oklahomans and putting them at risk for incarceration for failure to pay.

Lawmakers who recognize the problem have been reluctant to reduce them because they believe that criminal fines bring in significant amounts of money. However, data obtained from the Administrative Office of the Courts show that the majority of court fund collections come from other types of cases such as traffic, small claims, or civil cases. While our government should not rely on any of these fees to fund critical services, the relatively minor role of criminal fines and fees in the overall collections picture means that reducing criminal fines and fees is likely to be less costly than often assumed.

Low-income Oklahomans are disproportionately impacted

Previous data have detailed the growth of fees for criminal court cases in Oklahoma, highlighting the financial burden placed on low-income defendants. Felony and misdemeanor fees not only fail to bring in revenue, but they disproportionately impact low-income families and Oklahomans of color. People charged with felonies and misdemeanors are far more likely to be people of color, live in poverty, or suffer from a mental health condition. By continuing to charge defendants massive amounts of fees to fill budget shortfalls, we are perpetuating a cycle of discriminatory practices and penalizing our most vulnerable citizens.

When budgets rely on the number of people charged and convicted, it makes our court system less just. By not funding courts through the General Revenue Fund, we have created a fee-for-service incentive model where funding relies on quantity rather than quality of service. Low-income Oklahomans ultimately pay the heaviest cost.

Changing the way we fund our courts can improve the lives of Oklahoma families and make the system more just 

The current Legislative session holds opportunity for meaningful fines and fees reform. Senate bills (SB 1402, SB 1411) would eliminate certain supervision fees and move a portion of other fee revenue into the General Revenue Fund— separating the direct link between fees collected and court funding. Policymakers must take action this session to properly fund our court system and reform Oklahoma’s unjust and ineffective fines and fees system. Passing SB 1402 and SB 1411 will help get us there.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ashley Harvey joined OK Policy as the justice data analyst for Open Justice Oklahoma in September 2018. A native Oklahoman, she received her B.S. and M.S. from Oklahoma State University-Tulsa in Human Development and Family Science. She previously worked as a research assistant for OSU’s Center for Family Resilience evaluating various community and grant funded projects. As an Albert Schweitzer Fellow, she developed and implemented a family strengthening initiative within Tulsa County Juvenile Detention Center. Ashley is an alumna of OK Policy’s 2017 Summer Policy Institute. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. from OSU, where her research interests include family and community impacts of the justice system. She lives in the Tulsa area with her husband, Bryan, and their two children.

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