As Oklahomans continue to struggle through the COVID-19 crisis, our fines and fees system has worsened the impact for justice-involved families. Oklahoma courts have continued to pull millions of dollars from low-income communities to fund their operations during the pandemic, just as they do under normal circumstances. However, now families are even more financially strapped. This has occurred simultaneously to our courts grappling with budget shortfalls only partly filled during Fiscal Year 2021. Reforming our state’s fines and fees system has been a long-time need for Oklahoma families, and previous reform attempts have fallen short. The current pandemic has only made things worse, and lawmakers must work hard to find solutions in the coming legislative session.
Despite pandemic, millions of dollars paid into Oklahoma courts during 2020
Although Oklahoma courts suspended most of their activities back in March, they have continued to collect fines and fees. So far this year, about $33.7 million in court debt has been collected from felony and misdemeanor cases alone, compared to about $40 million collected by this time last year.
Still, most court debt—about 70 percent—goes unpaid each year because the financial burden is simply more than most Oklahomans can afford. Given that most people struggle to pay their fines and fees, it is not surprising that the largest portion of court debt payments comes during tax refund season, reaching its highest point in February. In 2020, that meant the highest percentage of payments were collected right before the pandemic significantly impacted the U.S. economy, especially for low-wage earners. Even more troubling is the fact that many of these payments are collected through tax refund interceptions, which means all or part of an individual’s tax refund is sent directly to the courts to cover outstanding debts.
Data show that the amount of Oklahoma court debt collected from tax interceptions during 2020 was about $330,000 more than the amount collected during 2019. Collections from tax interceptions increased at a time when defendants could least afford them.
Our current court funding system hurts Oklahoma families
Millions in court debt hang over families across the state even as one in three Oklahoma households struggle to pay for usual household expenses. Hundreds of thousands of Oklahoma families are struggling with unemployment, paying rent, and keeping food on the table. Many of these families were struggling before the COVID-19 crisis. The unemployment rate for justice-involved Oklahomans is five times higher than the statewide average. Even when employed, many still struggle to provide basic necessities for themselves and their families. Given these burdens, many justice-involved Oklahomans are facing significant issues supporting their families even without the added weight of funding Oklahoma’s court system through excessive fines and fees.
Asking these Oklahomans to pay for the court system that prosecutes them isn’t simply immoral, it doesn’t work. Analysis by OK Policy shows that the majority of these fees are never paid even under normal circumstances. Since 2003, the amount of revenue generated by criminal court fees has essentially flatlined even as legislators raised fees on criminal cases in an effort to fill budget shortfalls. The millions of dollars collected each year from mostly poor defendants leave our neighbors struggling to meet their most basic needs.
Not all families feel the effects of our justice system equally. Oklahoma locks up more women and Black people than any other state. Additionally, we incarcerate American Indians and Hispanics at a disproportionate rate. This disadvantages Oklahoma children of color or from female-headed families as they face unequal obstacles to success within our state.
We must learn from the mistakes of our past
Lawmakers have worked to fill past state budget shortfalls with increases in fines and fees. Not only have these efforts failed to raise revenue, they have contributed to the depletion of resources for entire neighborhoods. Now more than ever, Oklahoma families are struggling. We must stop placing an unequal financial burden on justice-involved Oklahomans. Legislators can take action next session to reorient the system towards justice rather than revenue generation.