Tens of thousands of Oklahomans enter the justice system each year, and many come out owing thousands of dollars in fines and fees. For poor Oklahomans, this debt can swallow up most of their family’s income and trap them in a cycle of incarceration and poverty. Dozens of state agencies receive funding from these fees, which have been used to plug holes in their budgets as tax revenue dries up. However, because most criminal defendants are already in poverty, only a small fraction of criminal fines and fees are ever collected, and state and local governments in Oklahoma spend far more incarcerating people for nonpayment.
A new report from Oklahoma Policy Institute examines the growth of fines and fees in recent years; how increasing court debt impacts the justice system poor Oklahomans; and the role that fine and fee revenue has come to play in state agencies’ budgets. The report also lays out recommendations for reform.