The police killing of George Floyd has reignited a national conversation about racial disparities in policing. While much of this conversation has been focused on municipal budgets and inadequate funding for mental health and social services, it’s also critical that lawmakers consider how the system of court fines and fees contributes to racial disparities in both policing and incarceration. Millions of dollars in court debt hangs over residents from some of Oklahoma’s poorest neighborhoods, and when Oklahomans can’t keep up with court payments, the courts may issue a warrant for their arrest. In the past decade, thousands of “failure to pay” warrants have been issued in ZIP codes that are home to Oklahoma’s largest communities of color.
This debt and these failure to pay warrants make it harder to keep a driver’s license, maintain a good paying job, and raise a family. None of this helps reduce crime. For Black and Brown communities with the highest concentrations of court debt in Oklahoma, failure to pay warrants increase the likelihood of contact with law enforcement and the justice system. Studies of certain Oklahoma neighborhoods with high court debt and larger Black populations show that residents experienced police stops more than 100 times the rate of predominantly white and wealthier neighborhoods. For instance, Black Tulsans represent 17 percent of the city’s population but account for 35 percent of all people arrested. Nearly 40 percent of all Tulsa Police Department arrests are based on outstanding county and city warrants, including a high percentage of warrants for failure to pay court fees, fines, and costs. Requiring police to function as debt collectors for Oklahoma’s courts worsens racial disparities in policing, wastes valuable law enforcement resources, and contributes to Oklahoma’s expensive incarceration crisis.
This funding scheme doesn’t protect public safety
Extracting wealth from the state’s poorest communities to fund the court system is simply terrible policy. It doesn’t reduce crime, and it effectively paints a law enforcement target on the communities least able to bear the cost of these bad policies. Under this scheme, police are often forced to function as collections agents for Oklahoma’s courts. Jailing low-income Oklahomans who can’t pay court debt has long been misguided; during a deadly global pandemic, however, it poses an even greater risk to the public.
Recent studies have outlined numerous public safety risks associated with this funding scheme. The opportunity cost for law enforcement, the courts, and the corrections system is enormous. Police and sheriff’s deputies who are making arrests on warrants for failure to pay fees and fines are less readily available to respond to 911 calls. Failure to pay hearings slow down court dockets and delay more serious proceedings. Parole and probation officers spend much of their time reminding their clients to pay unaffordable fees and fines. Those clients who fail to pay can even have their supervision revoked and be sent to prison because regular payment is a condition of release. There is also a growing body of evidence suggesting that levying unaffordable fines and fees increases the likelihood of re-offense.
Additionally, this funding model reduces the ability of courts to address problems that produce crime. From 2012 to 2018, Oklahoma’s criminal courts assessed more than $900 million in fines and fees. Nearly 70 percent of that debt — more than $600 million largely assessed to low-income Oklahomans — has never been paid. Data suggest that criminal court collections in Oklahoma have plateaued since 2003. Lawmakers continue to levy new fees year after year, but there is simply a natural limit to how much the poorest Oklahomans can pay.
Oklahoma lawmakers choose to fund more than 80 percent of our courts system through fines and fees assessed to Oklahomans who simply can’t pay them. As a result, successful court services that reduce recidivism and prevent crime — such as drug courts, mental health courts, and numerous victims service programs — are habitually underfunded. Sadly, this misguided strategy is all too common. A study of three states (Texas, Florida, and New Mexico) revealed absurdly high costs associated with using police and jails to collect court debt. One New Mexico county spends at least $1.17 to collect every dollar of revenue it raises through fees and fines, meaning that it loses money through this system. Oklahomans are not made safer through this funding scheme that fails to reduce crime, leads to underfunded courts and victims services, and wastes precious law enforcement resources.
Oklahoma’s reliance on court fines and fees worsens racial disparities in policing and incarceration
As we can see in the maps below, the highest concentrations of court debt and failure to pay warrants for Oklahoma’s two largest counties are located in communities of color. In Tulsa County near the historically significant Black Wall Street neighborhood, per capita court debt reaches as high as $701 per resident in Turley (ZIP code 74126), an area where about 57 percent of residents are Black and 38 percent of residents live below the poverty line. During the past decade, more than $7.3 million in fines and fees debt has accrued to residents of this small Black Tulsa community, where there are 37 failure to pay warrants for every 100 residents. The majority white parts of Tulsa County carry a fraction of that level of debt. Seventeen percent of all arrests in Tulsa are for municipal warrants — low-level misdemeanor and traffic ticket offenses — including failure to pay warrants, and police arrest Black Tulsans for all warrants at a rate 2.6 times greater than white Tulsans.
The map of Oklahoma County reveals a similar dynamic. Majority Black neighborhoods, like those in eastern Oklahoma City, carry the highest court fines and fees. For example, the 73111 ZIP code in northeastern Oklahoma City has an 80 percent Black population, a 37 percent poverty rate, and the highest rate of per capita court debt in Oklahoma County. In this low-income Black community, there is one case of outstanding court debt for every five residents, which totaled more than $4.3 million in court debt between 2010 and 2020. Predominantly Latinx communities, such as those in south Oklahoma City, also experience a massive wealth drain because of these counterproductive fines and fees policies. Latinx Oklahomans make up nearly 60 percent of the 73108 neighborhood, where more than 45 percent of residents live below the poverty line, but this neighborhood has Oklahoma County’s second highest per-capita court debt of $253. These racial disparities likely contribute to disparities in the police use of force. According to a report by MappingPoliceViolence.org, since 2013 Oklahoma City has the second highest per capita rate of residents killed by police in the nation. 70 percent of those killed by Oklahoma City police were nonwhite. Though nonwhite residents make up only 33 percent of the city’s overall population.
Fixing this system would improve public safety and racial justice in Oklahoma
Oklahoma’s criminal justice system is fundamentally broken. This state has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, and the jail and prison systems are riddled with racial disparities. Black Oklahomans are more than five times more likely to be incarcerated than white Oklahomans. Latinx and American Indians are roughly twice as likely to be incarcerated as whites. Some of these disparities are even worse among women, including American Indian women who are three times more likely to be incarcerated than white women. These disparities are worsened by the way we fund our courts, and these policies are devastating our communities of color. You can see this in our low-income Black and Brown neighborhoods where it’s 100 times more likely to be stopped by police and when “Black Tulsans are subjected to physical force, including tasers, police dog bites, pepper spray, punches, and kicks, at a rate 2.7 times that of white people.” This system is failing to protect many Oklahomans.
Courts are an essential function of government, and they should be funded accordingly. Our police officers are far too vital to public safety to waste their time serving essentially as bill collectors who arrest or jail poor people for failing to fund state courts. Policymakers should end the practice of incarceration for failure to pay court fines and fees, end license suspensions for court debt, and work to expunge some of the hundreds of millions in criminal court debt that hangs over the poorest neighborhoods in the state. These reforms would mean fewer Oklahoma families separated just because they can’t pay court debt. They would also ensure that thousands more families can continue to drive to work and school as they care for their kids. Funding our Oklahoma court system the same way that Netflix is funded— through a service fee — is terrible and ineffective policy. The moral and practical failings of this system should galvanize Oklahoma’s policymakers towards serious and immediate reform.