Senate committee hears proposals to reform fines and fees (Capitol Update)

Last week the Senate Judiciary Committee, at the request of Chairperson Sen. Julie Daniels (R-Bartlesville), held an interim study on an important criminal justice reform issue: Using the criminal justice system, including incarceration, to collect court-imposed fines, costs, fees, and assessments. The problem is really divided into two separate issues. First is the excessive use of costs and fees to pay for various government services.

Probably most legislators, and citizens for that matter do not realize how many fees and court costs have been added over the years to each criminal case filed. For example, for a speeding ticket 11-15 MPH over the speed limit, the fine is $20 but the costs and assessments are $244, totaling $264.

The costs and fees go to pay for the law library, the District Attorneys Council, the Oklahoma Criminal Information System, Sheriff’s Office for courthouse security, Attorney General’s Victims Services Unit, Child Abuse Multidisciplinary Account, Trauma Care Assessment, Sheriff’s Service Fee on Arrests, Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training Assessment, Automated Fingerprint Information System Assessment, Forensic Sciences Improvement Assessment, and the Department of Public Safety Patrol Fund.

For more serious offenses, the costs are higher. In addition, in many cases officers write multiple charges, district attorneys file multiple cases and the costs and assessments alone can add up to thousands of dollars. Sheriffs also are allowed to charge a daily rate for incarceration in the jail, which many counties do. All this is a symptom of the fact that people want more government than they are willing to pay for, so we pile the costs on offenders. Many are saddled with debt for years.

Which gives rise the second issue: collection. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that states may not use jails as a debtors’ prison to collect costs and fees from people who cannot afford to pay. Although the situation has improved in some counties recently, for years arrest warrants were routinely issued for people who were behind on their costs and fees payments with no meaningful determination of ability to pay. No doubt there are thousands of people today with outstanding arrest warrants for failure to pay costs. Recently in Tulsa, a man called the police because his home was burglarized. The police arrested the burglary victim on a many years-old arrest warrant for failure to pay costs. Fortunately, Tulsa County District Court now has a seven-day a week bond court, and the man was released after one night in jail.

The Senate Judiciary Committee heard proposals about ways courts can protect people from unlawful confinement for unpaid costs, fees, and assessments. They include: (1) advising the defendant at the time of sentencing exactly how much he will owe, (2) a better hearing in the beginning for the judge to determine if the defendant is being assessed costs that he is unable to pay, and (3) use of the civil justice system to collect fines, fees, and costs. The civil courts are quite good at collecting money from people who can afford to pay, and they do it without putting people in jail.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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