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.

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 “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.

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