By Steve Lewis
OKLAHOMA CITY – The Legislature faces a troubling challenge in attempting to limit the reliance of law enforcement agencies and the courts on fines and fees owed by defendants in criminal cases.
As the state faced budget gaps or added programs without funding them, it has piled on more court costs, fees, and assessments to avoid appropriating tax dollars. But 70% of criminal court debt goes unpaid each year. Meanwhile, thousands of Oklahomans — most of whom will never pay and likely cannot afford to — are burdened with the funding of courts and government agencies.
According to the Oklahoma Policy Institute, 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.
For example, it’s worth detailing that for a simple misdemeanor drug possession charge the defendant will owe about $850 in costs and fees for the following: Trauma Care Assistance Revolving Fund, DA Council Prosecution Assessment, Oklahoma Court Information System Revolving Fund, Sheriff’s Service Fee for Courthouse Security, Forensic Science Improvement Assessment, Medical Expense Liability Revolving Fund, Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training Penalty Assessment, Automated Fingerprint Information System Fee, Law Library Fee, Sheriff’s Service Fee on Arrests, Attorney General Victim Services Unit, Court Fund Assessment, Victim’s Compensation Assessment, Court Clerk Administrative Fee on Collections, Misdemeanor Court Costs, and District Court Administrative Fee.
Often, several counts are stacked on each other, multiplying these costs by the number of counts. This would be in addition to any fines, supervision fees, alcohol or drug assessments, or myriad other costs the defendant will be required to pay.
Caught in a vicious cycle of re-arrest on “cost warrants” or inability to have their cases terminated for failure to pay, these Oklahomans are trapped in a web that stands in the way of rehabilitation, re-entering the workforce, and moving on with their lives. In addition, the debt punishes families who go without or sometimes must contribute to payments that keep their loved one out of jail. Moreover, it is practically impossible to calculate the wasted time and money the criminal justice system spends to collect less than a third of the debt owed.
Few if any current members of the Legislature created this problem, which developed over decades. But the damage to Oklahoma families together with the governmental inefficiency demands they fix it.
Last year Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville, used her chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee to take on the issue. She held an interim study on fines and fees, and then introduced legislation to move the collection of criminal court debt from the criminal to the civil justice system. Rep. Chris Kannady, R-Oklahoma City, was House author of the legislation (Senate Bill 1425).
Senator Daniels’ proposal would have the benefit of not having people go to jail because they are too poor to pay court debt, as well as using the efficiencies of the civil court system to collect the indebtedness. In the civil system, creditors do not waste time, money, and effort trying to collect the uncollectible. But they have tools such as negotiated agreements, liens, asset recovery, and garnishment to collect from those who can pay.
Eventually, the Legislature should find a way to eliminate many of these burdensome costs and assessments, and then appropriate money to pay the costs of government. In the meantime, Senator Daniels’ proposal would increase collections for the agencies still relying on them and eliminate the worst abuses of the present system.
Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 1989-90. He practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the state Capitol.