Oklahoma’s debtors’ prisons aren’t just a nuisance – they’re an epidemic

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.


Ryan Gentzler worked at OK Policy from January 2016 until November 2022. He last served as the organization's Reserach Director and oversaw Open Justice Oklahoma. He began at OK Policy as an 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.

9 thoughts on “Oklahoma’s debtors’ prisons aren’t just a nuisance – they’re an epidemic

  1. See that’s what is wrong with this state, it pays more attention to their fines and costs relying on it to see them through so they believe the more people they arrested and incarcerate that they are gonna come out simply a ok. When in fact they are losing their asses. Then they figure on threatening a person who is homeless or jobless to pay what they want, if not they go to jail not realizing that those less fortunate people are actually okay with it so they have a place to lay their heads and free meals. So you are just doing them a favor at your cost not theirs. Oklahoma has a serious issue with handling their money they don’t know how it all happens well it begins with constant flow of incarcerating people in petty charges like running a stop sign in a bicycle or charging someone in a riding lawn mower with speeding. Are you serious that’s stupid. This state is always wanting to lock someone up knowing that they don’t have the means it the resources or the staff to watch over and care for these individuals. Let alone medical expenses. A revolving door that’s only putting them further in debt with building more prisons etc. Wake up Oklahoma your number 8 on the list of broke states. It’s not all about who gets elected in this seat or that seat, you have a serious indebtness that your only making worse you can’t keep robbing Peter to pay Paul. There’s other options you can take without trying to be top notch on the incarceration. Nor on the top of being elected. Heck I wouldn’t want to be elected in a state that can’t even pull itself out of debt. Look how many had tried before you and failed what makes you think you are gonna make a difference if you have constant objective people who are blind to what’s going on and only care about their position they are holding. Opposition is always their way. If you don’t pull it together and soon the state Oklahoma is gonna sink and it’s all over with. So something that’s productive and pull upward instead of downward all the time…

  2. Families who are very poor end up having to support the offender when they get out if jail or prison because they have to pay right away. A payment plan has to be implemented in 3 days after getting released. I am on social security and have helped my son pay fines which is devastating to the family because getting a job is next to impossible the first few weeks after release. This is a debtors prison system and an abuse of the elderly in Oklahoma.

  3. I have several mental illness diagnosis…from my brain being cut off from oxygen saturation and being on life support for a significant amount of time at the age of 24 due to virulent strand of pneumococcal pneumonia which invaded both lungs and sent me into ARDS and just about killed me…got stranded in an ambulance on the way to Tulsa ICU due to bad weather…lack of oxygen in that ambulance from Talihina en route to Tulsa where a paramedic manually bagged me for miles upon miles upon miles….the ice age of 2004 I recall some parts of it…the point is I have several charges now…all behavior issues…disorderly conduct…resisting arrest….obstruction…public intox for not being able to pass the field sobriety test..4 tests was given to me and I missed one step on one test on a Sunday morning in my pajamas out in my own front yard as my mother cooked breakfast for me and my family…I was outside piddling for a pack of cigarettes in my vehicle and it was parked too far out in the road…a police officer stopped and wanted to know what I was digging for…I wasn’t under the influence of anything that day…it was church day….but I went to jail instead for failing a field sobriety test….but now I am 38 years old with warrants in two counties for failure to pay….because they have took my drivers license away and I can’t get to the two counties to check into the District attorneys offices and pay the $100 amounts a month in each one as well as check in with no DL and blah blah….I sit here pregnant….and should be excited about a baby…but all I do is worry my life away with the thought that they will lock me up for being behind $241 in one county and they always laugh and snark at me as they lock me up and to me I am more than compliant…how I even got the obsruction charge and resisting I really don’t know….they said I was smartelic when hey stopped to ask me all those questions about what I was looking for in my vehicle that morning and when they went to handcuff me I stepped backwards instead of stood still…who wouldn’t have….idk…it makes me want to give my baby up for adoption to happy people that don’t have failure to pay warrants I barely get down to the prenatal doctor visits and that only cuz sooner ride comes and gets me.

  4. This article just shows that financial crises is all over the world. I also believe that being poor is not a crime. I hope that every person are given a chance to make a way on how to pay their debt and not be thrown to jail.

  5. Hello,
    My name is Harold Swarb Jr.
    I live in Maud,Oklahoma which is Pottawatomie County where they don’t care if you have a job or not. Pott. County will put you in jail for failure to pay your fines and cost even if you have a low income job. I was put in prison in 2014 because of a girlfriend and her nephew lied on me and I was sent to prison because her nephew discharged a gun in town a d stuck it in my face the gun discharged was never brought up but me cutting him with a box knife was it was because I had a record. I had a eye witness statement putting the man where he said he wasn’t and my ex girlfriend retracted her statement where she said she was drunk and pilled up at the time of all this happening. Now then I was sentenced to 6 years in prison for something I thought was self defense instead my lawyer hung me out to dry and the da’s office wouldn’t take and use the retracted statement because they wanted nothing more then a conviction and for me to pay over 10,000 dollars in fines and cost. I’m trying to get my social security for PTSD and bi-bolar with Marjor depression to go along with that also a history of drug and alcohol abuse so when will all this madness stop to help the ones that really do need help and not jail people who can’t afford to pay like myself.
    I stand a chance of going back to prison because I can’t pay because of my condition I have and cant do a thing about it either.
    So please take note that the state of Alabama DOJ put forfoth that you cant jail a person simply because he or she is poor. If our state would bring up minimum wage to were it should be our crime rate should drop drastically and our prison population would go down. All the state of Oklahoma is concerned about is conviction conviction is all they want in this state and money. This state is the last to do one damn thing right for the people.
    Thank you very much for the time to print this to all that deserve a break from the injustice system of Oklahoma. You come to Oklahoma for a vacation leave on probation. So in long stay out of 9klahoma they are killing there own people slowly. Know one wants to live here.
    The smaller towns are even worse then the state that makes them money hungry bastards.

    Thank you again Harold Swarb, Jr.
    One of many people who owes the system nothing because I’ve already paid my dues to the state and then some.

  6. Oklahoma needs reform. Why is their a dismissed with fees. Basically you can be arrested, found innocent but still have to pay fees. That’s wrong, if your innocent you should have no fees, you should walk out of court owing nothing.
    Their for it makes it ok for police officers to arrest you without evidents or not enough evidence, the prosecutor can file a case on you without evidence to support their case so the courts and the whole justice system can make money.
    So right or wrong, you pay.

  7. I had to send my mentally ill daughter to CO where she is homeless. Alva PD was knocking on my door daily. She’s never been loud or violent. She’s just unable to work. I believe she is still alive.

  8. i was on probation for 10 years and never failed to pay fines and fees in major county, i am due to be off probation in 6 months, so iwas behind a month and the folowing month i was arrested , i had 70.00 in my pocket, i needed 90.00 i am bipolar and on a fixed income, they arrested me, left my service dog in my home, let me make 1 call, my sister brought the other 20$ to get me caught up, but no they insisted on the full amount of 715.00 which w’asn’t even due yet, a friend paid it, now i’m paying him, however when he came to pay it, the guy working said he wasn’t allowed to handle that much money, so 4 days later i was out. did they hire a crook or an idiot ? why demand all my fine before it was due? and now,,,, they’ve put me on the docket for the 26thTH and i owe them nothing, it has been b.s. since they arested me 10 years ago, then i got a flat a week after i paid them off and the cop pulled over harrasing me, is it against thew law to have a flat??

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