Rural Oklahomans frequently carry larger burden for court fines, fees

Data from the Oklahoma Policy Institute’s Open Justice Oklahoma database, which draws from state court records, shows that fines and fees are harming Oklahomans statewide, with rural Oklahomans particularly impacted. Our analysis suggests that rural Oklahomans are asked to pay just as much, and often more, than their urban counterparts. More worrisome still, urban areas like Tulsa and Oklahoma counties have the most difficulty in collecting fines and fees, meaning rural Oklahomans are effectively contributing more of their money to fund the court system as compared to their urban counterparts. Far from being a uniquely “urban” issue, excessive court fees and fines are a statewide problem, and one that demands a statewide solution.

OK Policy has written at length about the problem of excessive court fines and fees that stem from the state’s underfunded justice system. Our work has highlighted how the number and cost of fines and fees have exploded in recent years, leaving many Oklahomans on the hook for thousands (or even tens of thousands of dollars) in court debt. Not only do these fines and fees make it dramatically harder for people to move on after being involved with the criminal justice system, they also do a poor job of funding the court system. It is unconscionable, not to mention nonsensical, to place the burden for funding courts and other essential government services on the backs of Oklahomans who are least able to pay, which traps them in a never-ending cycle of poverty.

Residents of rural counties were asked to pay more in fines and fees on average than residents of urban counties

The two counties that assessed the most in fines and fees (by far) were the state’s two largest urban areas — Oklahoma and Tulsa counties — so it’s easy to see why some might think fines and fees are a uniquely urban issue. Additionally, OK Policy’s previous work has highlighted the disparate impact of fines and fees on majority Black areas of Tulsa and Oklahoma counties. 

However, looking only at the totals creates a distorted picture of the problem. Urban areas assess more in total fines and fees primarily because they have more residents, and therefore more cases, than rural areas. When we divide the totals above by each county’s population to find per capita fines and fees, we see a totally different story. Here, we can see residents of predominantly rural counties (such as Rogers, Adair, Garfield, and Pushmataha counties) are actually assessed more per person than the residents of more urban counties like Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Cleveland counties.

In addition to per capita fines and fees, we also examine fines and fees per defendant, as shown in the chart below. Two things are immediately clear: first, even misdemeanor cases leave defendants with almost $1,000 in court debt on average, while felony cases can cost well upwards of twice that  — and that’s without considering other costs, like the “room and board” costs assessed by jails and the steep costs of bail. Second, for both felony and misdemeanor cases, there is no immediately obvious difference between rural and urban counties when it comes to per defendant averages. Semi-urban Comanche County is at the top of the list for felony cases. But if fines and fees were truly an “urban” problem, we would expect to see all the urban counties (particularly Tulsa and Oklahoma counties) near the top for both types of cases. Instead, we see no relationship between whether a county is urban or rural and the amount of fines and fees assessed.

Looking at the numbers for felony and misdemeanor cases combined confirms that there is little difference in how much rural and urban counties ask defendants to pay:

  • Predominantly rural counties assessed an average of $1,399.34 in court fines/fees per case.
  • Predominantly urban counties assessed an average of $1,305.59 in court fines/fees per case.

Rural Oklahomans pay more of their court fines and fees than do urban Oklahomans

Our analysis of fines and fees assessments shows that rural Oklahomans are asked to pay more, but how much do people actually end up paying? Our analysis of fines and fees payments shows that rural Oklahomans also tend to pay a greater portion of their court debt. For cases filed in 2016, Tulsa and Oklahoma counties had the lowest rates of collections among the counties in our sample. 

When looking at the fines and fees payment rate, there are two clear takeaways. First, well under half of the fines and fees assessed were actually paid, which underscores both the defendants’ inability to pay and demonstrates the fiscal problem with using fines and fees as the primary way of funding courts and other essential government services. Second, payment rates are lowest by far in Tulsa and Oklahoma counties, and rural counties as a whole clearly see higher payment rates than do urban counties. Further research would be needed to determine exactly why this is the case. For instance, it’s possible that urban counties have increased difficulties with collection due to the sheer amount of cases they have to track. The trend itself, however, is clear.

Excessive and burdensome court fines and fees impact rural areas just as much, if not more, than urban areas

No matter how you slice it, the data show that rural Oklahomans pay just as much, and often more, in fines and fees than Oklahomans who live in the state’s metro areas. This data makes it clear that fines and fees are a statewide issue, and not something any of us can afford to ignore. 

Fortunately, there are policy changes Oklahoma can pursue to transition our courts system from an unreliable revenue stream of fines and fees to a more fair, equitable and stable operating revenue. In the short term, lawmakers should pass legislation to reduce the number and amount of fines and fees assessed by the courts, focusing on some of the most costly and least fair. These could include the automatic $10,000 drug trafficking fine, which almost always goes mostly unpaid, or the $50 fee to apply for a public defender. 

In the long term, we should move towards funding our court system using appropriated revenue rather than nickel-and-diming Oklahomans statewide. Appropriating state revenue to fully fund our court system would guarantee more stable funding, and it would reduce the unfair burden being placed on those who are least able to afford to pay. Put simply, our current system forces defendants and courts across the state to focus on money; reforming court fines and fees would allow them to focus more on justice instead.

 

Note about the data:

Data used for this analysis is extracted by OK Policy’s Open Justice Oklahoma program from the Oklahoma State Court Network (OSCN). Thirteen counties (Oklahoma, Tulsa, Rogers, Comanche, Cleveland, Payne, Garfield, Canadian, Logan, Adair, Pushmataha, Roger Mills, and Ellis) make information about court fines and fees available on the OSCN website. For this analysis, we calculated each county’s total fine and fee assessments (i.e. the total they asked people to pay) for all cases filed in 2016, as well as the total of the payments the court received (i.e. the money people actually paid) for those cases. In calculating these totals, we also excluded any fine/fee assessments related to jail costs or bail forfeiture. This allows us to see what an average year’s “cohort” of cases looks like five years after the fact, and enables us to see any potential differences between how urban and rural Oklahomans experience court fines and fees. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Bell joined the Oklahoma Policy Institute in March 2021 as a criminal justice data analyst. Born and raised in Lawrence, Kansas, Andrew moved to Oklahoma in 2016 to attend the University of Oklahoma, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and is currently working towards a Master of Public Administration degree. Andrew has worked in many roles within the field of social science and public policy, including working the phones at a public opinion polling center to organizing and conducting research on risk communication at the OU Center for Risk and Crisis Management. He hopes to use the skills he has learned through those experiences to help build a better, more just Oklahoma. Andrew enjoys baking, college basketball, and his orange cat named Bean.

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