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.