Court debt is heavily concentrated in the low-income, majority black areas of Tulsa County (Map by OK Policy)

Earlier this year, we released a report detailing the growth of fees attached to criminal court cases in Oklahoma. We found that as legislators attempt to prop up falling state revenues, fees have risen for every type of crime. When low-income defendants can’t keep up with payments on their enormous financial burdens to the court, a warrant may be issued for their arrest, leading to a cycle of incarceration that makes the climb out of poverty nearly impossible. Failure to pay court costs is among the most common reasons for bookings into the Tulsa County and Oklahoma County jails. 

Though we’ve had a clear sense of the individual-level impact of this debt through the stories of those who are affected, it’s been hard to quantify the impact on communities as a whole. The agency in charge of levying and collecting court-related fines and fees, the Administrative Office of the Courts, does not collect or publish data on how much is charged to or collected from people convicted of crimes.

To get a clearer sense of the depth of the problem, we collected data on outstanding debts to the court from the state court system’s online ePayments tool for misdemeanor and felony cases filed from 2011 to 2016. The data, available only for 13 counties across the state, includes the age and address of the defendant, the number of charges on their case, and the amount of money they currently owe to the courts. It does not include other amounts that defendants may owe in relation to their case, such as supervision fees due to the Department of Corrections or the District Attorney’s office. ZIP code data was unavailable in less than 5 percent of the roughly 139,000 cases for which data was collected.

The data paints a striking picture of the people and communities that are hit hardest by the rise in court fees. In many areas of North Tulsa, for example, court debt amounts to over $300 per adult resident. It reaches as high as $590 per resident in Turley (ZIP code 74126), an area where about 57 percent of residents are black and 38 percent of residents live below the poverty line; in Turley, there is one case of outstanding debt for every five residents. The majority white parts of the county owe a fraction of that level of debt. (The very high $899 in court debt per capita in the downtown Tulsa ZIP code is likely due to defendants who listed homeless shelters as their home address.) 

Demographic data via U.S. Census Bureau 2011-2015 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates

It’s a similar story in Oklahoma County: the highest debts per capita are found in south Oklahoma City ZIP codes with Hispanic/Latino majorities and in east Oklahoma City ZIP codes with black majorities. The highest debt ZIP code in Oklahoma County, however, had a per capita debt of about $260, less than half of its counterpart in Tulsa County. There are a number of possible explanations for this, including differences in approaches among prosecutors and judges, but it’s difficult to know from this data alone what drives the enormous gap in debt between the two metro areas.

The data shown above provides a snapshot of court debt in June of this year, so the picture will change over time. Because it was incurred recently, between 2011 and 2016, many of the people who owe fines and fees to the courts may still be incarcerated and so are unlikely to pay off their debt quickly. Debts are commonly in the thousands of dollars, so even low-income defendants who are not incarcerated have little choice but to pay them off with small monthly payments.

Still, there is reason to believe that the picture might remain the same for a long time: one judge estimated that only around 5 to 11 percent of criminal costs are ever collected. In the meantime, it’s clear that the communities that are struck hardest by court fees are those with the least ability to ever pay them off.

These data offer another way to look at a few common themes in our criminal justice system. For one, racial disparities place overwhelming burdens on disadvantaged groups; this clearly extends to the debt that follows a person after their involvement with the justice system. For another, justice outcomes vary greatly due in large part to the idiosyncrasies of local prosecutors and judges; there are almost certainly some policies and practices in place — formal or informal — that lead to much higher debts in Tulsa County than in Oklahoma County. 

Most of all, the data reveal why it’s so inefficient to fund our courts through fines and fees: it requires the courts to squeeze as much money as possible out of the communities that can least afford it. The criminal costs collected by the courts plateaued long ago; there’s little reason to expect we can collect more in the future. Instead, it’s time to look at ways to reduce debts for those who can’t afford them. Doing so could let our justice system devote less time to funding itself and more time to focusing on doing justice for victims and offenders.