In the words of District Judge Thad Balkman, Monday was a “light night” at the Cleveland County Detention Center.
Only nine people spent the night in jail on charges of failure to pay their court-mandated fees or fines.
“The sad part about it is that these individuals are taking up beds in our jails and it’s at cost of $42 per day to our county,” he said Tuesday. “I’m sorry to say, but in Cleveland County we are operating a debtor’s prison.”
Balkman’s statements were made during a legislative interim-study hearing at the State Capitol, held to discuss Oklahoma’s court fees and fines and how they affect the state and those who must pay them.
An Oklahoma Watch investigation last year found thousands of Oklahomans convicted of non-violent crimes routinely struggle to pay off their debts after leaving jail or prison. The fees begin at the time of arrest and can include costs for each day in jail a public defender, a jury, a court reporter, a probation officer, an ankle monitor and more.
Many who spoke at Tuesday’s hearing issued calls for the Legislature to increase funding for the courts instead of continuing the trend of raising fines and fees to pay for criminal justice operations and programs. That trend persisted last session when the Legislature approved a bill that increased fines for dozens of criminal and traffic crimes.
“The people we are talking about are the least able to survive economically, just living day to day,” said Rob Nigh, Tulsa County’s chief public defender. “And when we impose fees and fines – and the costs for a felony case are always over $1,000 – it turns into a life sentence for these people.”
Ryan Gentzler, a policy analyst with the Oklahoma Policy Institute, said his group’s research shows that moves to increase the fees over the last dozen years have not resulted in increased collections.
“We continue to create more debt and more debtors each year, but we don’t appear to be raising new money,” he said. “In essence, we’ve squeezed all the blood out of these turnips.”
Others, however, suggested alternatives to just lowering the fees.
Oklahoma County District Court Special Judge Donald Easter said the problem isn’t that the fees are too high, rather that enforcement isn’t being done correctly.
He said judges need to follow recent U.S. Department of Justice guidelines that say courts should examine alternatives, such as community service, before sending low-income residents to jail if they are unable to pay fees or fines.
Judges could set debtors up on payment plans that they can reasonably pay, even if it’s for a long period of time.
Balkman said there are large disparities in how judges and police departments deal with those who owe court fees. For example, he said, Norman police routinely jail those who have unpaid debts, but Moore and Noble do not.
“That’s something city officials have to look at,” he said.
Several presenters at the hearing suggested that better statewide data be collected on how much defendants are being charged and how much is being collected.
Jari Askins, chief administrative officer of the state’s court system, said after some setbacks in recent years, progress is being made on on creating a case management system that would allow more data to be collected and analyzed.