These Oklahoma bills could help put a stop to debtors’ prisons

Dozens of fees are heaped upon people charged with crimes in Oklahoma. They are used to support services like court filings, law libraries, public defenders, and courthouse security. When defendants can’t pay, the consequences are far-reaching; last year a series of articles by Oklahoma Watch chronicled the financial pressures put on people involved in the criminal justice system and their families.

Since the approval of State Question 640 made tax increases much more difficult to enact, the number of fees charged on criminal defendants has almost tripled, from 23 in 1992 to 63 in 2014. In effect, we have transferred the cost of providing public safety from taxpayers as a whole to the mostly low-income Oklahomans who become wrapped up the criminal justice system (an estimated 60 to 90 percent of all criminal defendants are indigent).

However, Oklahoma may have finally reached a tipping point as lawmakers realize that these fees can work against the goal of protecting public safety. For the first time in years, legislators are seriously considering measures to reduce the fines and fees that keep too many Oklahomans in an inescapable cycle of debt. These are some of the bills that were introduced this session:

HB 3160 by House Speaker Jeff Hickman would reduce court costs and fees while a person serves time in prison and allow judges to waive them under certain circumstances. Currently, defendants awaiting trial in a county jail can be charged upwards of $45 a day for months on end, saddling them with thousands of dollars of debt by the time they finish their prison term. Since ex-prisoners typically have few options for only low-paying work, it is little wonder that high court debt contributes to higher rates of recidivism. HB 3160 was approved in committee and awaits consideration on the House floor.

“Reducing the burden of court-related costs will go a long way toward a more just criminal justice system.”

The difficulty with paying this debt is compounded by the fact that all court-related debt must be paid before a person can get his or her driver’s license back. HB 2474 by Rep. Pam Peterson and SB 1503 by Sen. Kay Floyd, which have also passed committee, would remove the requirement that a person pay off outstanding fees and fines before getting a provisional driver’s license that would allow them to drive to and from work and a few other limited places. Although a 2013 law currently allows those with suspended or revoked licenses to obtain a provisional license while they pay off outstanding fees to the Department of Public Safety, all other debt must be paid before it can be issued, limiting its usefulness.

HB 3119 authored by Rep. Scott Martin, which passed the Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on Judiciary, would address fines for drug court participants. Drug court fees can total between $80 and $100 per month, a significant expense for participants typically employed in low-paying jobs and trying to overcome their substance abuse issues. HB 3119 would allow a judge to waive or reduce all of these costs and fees upon completion of the program, helping to give participants the fresh start they need.

Unfortunately, the bills that would go the furthest to address this problem were not allowed a hearing. HB 2383 and HB 2960 by Rep. Regina Goodwin and Rep. George Young, respectively, would prevent any person from going to jail for nonpayment of debt, a strong response to the issue of modern day “debtor’s prisons.” Failure to pay warrants accounted for 29 percent of bookings into the Tulsa County jail in July 2013, up from just 8 percent in July 2004, and a recent study of the Oklahoma County jail revealed a similar dynamic there. A group of researchers from the University of Tulsa Law School found that although state law requires that judges assess a person’s ability to pay, this is rarely done in Tulsa County, leaving many trapped in jail awaiting a hearing. This is a waste of county resources and leads to major disruptions in defendants’ lives. 

The problem of exorbitant fines and fees has been festering for years, and lawmakers should be applauded for stepping up to address them this year. Reducing the burden of court-related costs will go a long way toward a more just criminal justice system. It’s also another reminder of the real cost of years of budget cuts and flat funding — when lawmakers refuse to invest sufficient tax dollars in core services, the cost doesn’t disappear. Instead it’s been shifted onto those who are least able to pay.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ryan Gentzler joined OK Policy in January of 2016 as a policy analyst focusing on criminal justice issues, including sentencing, incarceration, court fines and fees, and pretrial detention. Open Justice Oklahoma grew out of Ryan’s groundbreaking analysis of court records, which was used to inform critical policy debates. A native Nebraskan, he holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Oklahoma and a BA in Institutions and Policy from William Jewell College. He served as an OK Policy Research Fellow in 2014-2015.

4 thoughts on “These Oklahoma bills could help put a stop to debtors’ prisons

  1. I know this is an old article but it’s still relevant today.

    I have a friend who was injured at work to the point of being in a wheelchair. His company had no workers comp so there was no income for months for my friend and his family. He got behind in his fines and has been arrested and jailed for non payment. He tried to make partial payments but Kay county would not except less than total due.

    The man can not work and has been proven so by being approved for social security. Though the state takes 50% for child support. So he lives on $413 a month. How is he supposed to live and pay fines on that amount?

  2. My bf has just been picked up for non payment of fines & fees accrued when he served time in prison. He owes 15000$ & i am currently unemployed & he is the number 1 provider in our home. He is on ssi & lives on $550 a month. After the bills are paid there is nothing left to pay fines. But they are wanting to put him back in prison for not paying which will add money owed to an already impossible debt. I dont believe that poor people should have to pay the rest of their lives when they have already served their time. He has changed & is tryjng to go on the straight path but these fines are hindering him. What is he supposed to do? Go back to crime to pay off his fines. How is that rehabilitation? This law needs to be passed so former inmates can have a chance of staying out of prison.

  3. We should NOT be charging for hosting of criminals that’s what taxes are for. I guarantee you if you do away with these fees and apply “a time served” sentence instead then the over crowding and recidivism rate would go down. If you can’t do that then get then jobs while in prison that pay a rate that pay off the fines. None of the .45 cents an hour buisness.

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