The problem of debtors’ prisons in Oklahoma has slowly come out into the open in recent years. More and more criminal defendants have been unable to pay off the thousands of dollars in fines and fees piled on them by our justice system. When they fail to pay, a warrant is issued for their arrest, and they may spend several days in jail for the crime of being too poor.

Heartbreaking stories of Oklahomans incarcerated for failure to pay their court costs have appeared everywhere from Oklahoma Watch to the New York Times, but we haven’t had a great understanding of just how many defendants are affected. A new OK Policy analysis of court records in five counties* shows that the number of people who are affected is staggering: In one county, as many as two in three criminal cases result in an arrest warrant for failure to pay at some point. It’s yet more evidence that the excessive fines and fees imposed on criminal defendants are creating enormous hardship for the people who can least afford it.

Fines and fees are overwhelming for many defendants

Courts collect millions of dollars in fines and fees each year to fund their operations, but what they collect is only a fraction of how much is charged to defendants. Previously, we used court records to map the millions of dollars in court debt in Tulsa and Oklahoma Counties, showing that court debt per person is up to 10 times higher in low-income neighborhoods compared to high-income neighborhoods.

To get a clearer sense of the problem of debtor’s prisons, we collected case data from the state court system’s online Docket search for misdemeanor and felony cases filed from 2008 to 2015 in five counties: Oklahoma, Tulsa, Comanche, Rogers, and Pushmataha. The results show that the financial burden is simply overwhelming for many – and in some places, most – of the people who bear the costs.

Court records show that failure to pay warrants were issued in about two in three felony cases that resulted in court costs filed in Tulsa County in 2008. That means a solid majority of those who had cases that were disposed as a conviction, deferral, or dismissal with costs could not pay their court fines and fees. In Rogers County, over half of 2008 felony defendants had a warrant issued for failure to pay.

The numbers aren’t much better for misdemeanors, even though court fines and fees tend to be lower and fewer defendants qualify for a public defender. In three of the five counties from which we collected data, failure to pay warrants were issued in about half of misdemeanor cases filed in 2008. 

Failure to pay warrants hinder defendants’ rehabilitation and are a waste of resources

Because debts are so large and defendants’ incomes are generally very low, defendants are often asked to pay their debt in monthly installments of $25 to $100 a month. Even if a person has a full-time job, keeping up with these payments can be a challenge for a low-income family. As time goes by, more and more defendants slip up and get caught in a dangerous trap door that threatens that person’s rehabilitation even years after their case is resolved. In Tulsa County, over half of felony cases with costs had at least one failure to pay warrant within four years of their case being filed, rising steadily to about two thirds of defendants after nine years.

Data that covers a longer period shows the epidemic proportions of court debt and debtors’ prisons in Tulsa County. Of the approximately 72,000 felony and misdemeanor cases that resulted in costs there between 2008-2015, 43.5 percent received at least one failure to pay warrant – a total of over 31,000 cases. Those cases imposed about $154 million in court fines and fees, of which less than a quarter – about 23.9 percent – had been collected as of fall 2017. 

Courts and law enforcement agencies are ever more reliant on the money they collect due to declines in state funding. They devote a great deal of resources to pursuing, arresting, incarcerating, and adjudicating people who have failed to pay the outlandish sums that are demanded of them. The available evidence suggests that this is a losing financial proposition for the agencies involved, who end up spending more trying to collect debt than they gain in revenue.

Courts often ignore the requirement to make a good-faith effort to assess each defendant’s ability to pay

Although judges are required by law to take into account a person’s ability to pay when imposing fines and fees, that requirement is basically ignored in practice. Judges may ask how much a person can afford and set very low monthly payments, but there is little evidence that judges make a habit of waiving or reducing debts, even in cases of severe poverty.

Strong legislation to standardize ability-to-pay calculations, reduce the impact of debtors’ prisons, and create repayment pilot programs was considered last year, but ultimately failed. Similar bills will almost certainly be introduced this year. For the sake of the lives of thousands of Oklahoma who become entrapped by this needless cycle of debt and incarceration, lawmakers must pass these reforms in 2018.

*Five counties were chosen to include the most populous two counties and provide comparisons to rural counties in different areas of the state. Data was available only from counties that used the Oklahoma State Court Network for reporting in 2008. Data was collected in September – October 2017 and January 2018 from the online records of 29,852 felony and misdemeanor cases filed in 2008. Of these cases, 22,299 included a conviction, a deferred conviction, or were dismissed with costs. Data on Tulsa cases from 2008 to 2015 included 100,279 cases, of which 71,898 resulted in costs.