Thousands of offenders in Oklahoma fail to pay what they owe on court fines and fees each year.
The reason often has less to do with defiance than with being too poor to make good on debt, some judges say.
In Oklahoma County, for example, as of August the district court had about 134,000 open cases going back to 2000 in which offenders owed a total of around $110 million, said Oklahoma County Special Judge Donald Easter.
The nonpayment of court penalties creates a dilemma for judges, who must decide whether to throw offenders back in jail or prison, try to work out a new payment plan or reduce the bill.
Tighter budgets for courts have intensified efforts to collect the debt. The Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office hired a collections agency to go after unpaid fines and fees several years ago. Since October, the court has increased the number of bench warrants it issues for failure to pay, from an average 1,000 to 4,000 warrants a month, Easter said.
State Supreme Court Vice Chief Justice Douglas Combs said sometimes the law has no choice but to jail those who refuse.
“They’re there because of their own actions. While you may be sympathetic to their plight, there’s still an obligation to fulfill the requirements of their punishment,” Combs said.
Tulsa defense attorney Allen Smallwood said he believes too many offenders are being locked up for unpaid fines. “It’s almost like a debtor’s prison,” he said.
Some ex-inmates feel trapped. Homer Stephens, of Oklahoma City, was struggling to pay his fines and fees. Then he took a gamble, trying to force the system to let him get on with life. He wasn’t sure the move would work.
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