For being one of the cheapest states to live in, Oklahoma sure has a real knack for finding ways to make its citizens submerge into crippling debt. Theoretically speaking, fees and fines in the court system are supposed to be a deterrent for potential criminals and to keep repeat offenders from repeatedly offending. Logically that should keep people out of jail. But Oklahoma has never been too good with logic.
Fines, dues and court expenses assessed to Oklahoma defendants have spiked since fiscal year 2007 and some criminal justice reform advocates say state and local government agencies are increasingly relying on them as an income source. Citations, fees and costs have risen 27% since 2007.
And even though fines have risen by 27% over the last 12 years, the median income for the state of Oklahoma has risen less by less than 2%. What is even more batshit is that if you can’t pay these fines, you’ll likely be issued a warrant for your arrest, which also comes with $50-$100 in fines. Which adds up quickly. According to The Tulsa World, the income for such fees and fines adds up to about $160 million annually, which is appropriated for state and local entities. But wait! There’s more…
State lawmakers have also imposed two administrative charges that collectively require defendants to pay an additional 25% of all fees amassed by the courts for the executive branch. Court collections have contributed to around 66% to 90% of yearly district court subsidies over that same period.
Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform director Kris Steele says an impoverished person’s inability to pay either puts them in jail or they return to crime in order to satisfy the debts.
The Tulsa World article goes on to state that the rest of the 10-34% of the funding to district courts is distributed by Oklahoma lawmakers from the general fund. So of course lawmakers would pass a law that makes defendants responsible for a quarter of their own court fees. Because that means there’s less funding lawmakers have to work towards providing for the government agencies. But in jacking up fees and jailing people for not paying them, it seems like our criminal justice system is shooting itself in the foot.
In fact, in a study of the Tulsa County Jail it was found the percentage of people arrested for failure to pay court fees increased from 8% in 2004 to 29% in 2013. First of all, our jails are already overcrowded and underfunded in this state. Second, it costs to stay in jail. Lab analyses, mental health screenings, and medical liability can cost hundreds of dollars, not including the daily fee jails often charge for the honor and delight of staying there. Though this fee is supposed to be passed on to the inmate if convicted, you’d be hard pressed to have an inmate jailed for failure to pay court fees who actually has the ability to pay back that per diem. So if lawmakers really wanted to cut down on the costs of the Oklahoma justice system, they wouldn’t make it a debtors’ prison.
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