Prisoners of Debt
This is the first in a series of stories reported jointly by Oklahoma Watch and KGOU Radio. A radio segment by KGOU’s Kate Carlton Greer will be aired on Monday, and the next story will be published on Tuesday.

Darlene Lorenz was released from prison seven years ago.

The Tulsa woman had spent a decade in the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud on various drug and firearms charges. Her conviction capped several years of run-ins with the law. Lorenz said she was arrested more than 80 times.

“It was crazy,” Lorenz said. “I was the world’s worst drug dealer.”

Lorenz got out of prison early. Although she was sentenced to more than 270 years behind bars – amounting to a life sentence — in 2006 then-Gov. Brad Henry approved a Pardon and Parole Board recommendation to commute her sentence. She left Mabel Bassett to begin a new life.

Today, at 65, Lorenz still feels like a captive. She owes $91,000 in court-imposed fines and other fees related to her case. Another life sentence.

Lorenz is among the thousands of Oklahomans convicted of non-violent crimes, especially drug-related offenses, who face fines and fees that are difficult, if not impossible, to pay off after prison. The fines can range from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars. The fees – for things like fingerprinting, a trauma-care fund and applying for a public defender — can tack on hundreds or thousands more.

The charges continue after inmates begin serving time in prison or jail. They pay fees for making phone calls and their families pay fees for transferring money into inmate accounts. After offenders are released, they may pay monthly probation fees and steep costs for getting a driver’s license restored.

Fines Chart image

Former inmates, attorneys and some lawmakers say the combined costs are making even steeper the barriers for ex-offenders to build a stable life after prison. They often struggle to find jobs, and if they get one, their wages can be garnished to pay fines and fees. If they don’t pay, they can be returned to prison.

Court and state records show the fees and fines don’t just fund the criminal justice system, but also go toward funding mental health programs, uncompensated care in hospitals, schools, and roads and bridges.

“It’s mind-boggling,” former state Rep. Joe Eddins, D-Vinita said, referring to the number of fines and fees. Eddins worked on prisoner fee issues when he served in the Legislature. “It’s a miracle that they (ex-offenders) do what they have to do and go straight, when you look at it.”

Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Douglas Combs said in an interview with Oklahoma Watch that there is a need to require offenders to pay fines and fees – an actual “debt to society” — because of their crimes.

“There should be consequences,” he said. “There should be a penalty for the result of their actions, which violate society.”

State Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Norman, who has pushed for sentencing reforms, also said he supports financial penalties for offenders on top of incarceration, but the fines should be reasonable.

“I think the offender needs to make the effort to pay something, but there has to be a happy medium,” he said.

Arrest Triggers Fees

For those who enter the criminal justice system, potential debt begins building quickly.

In most counties, when a suspect is arrested and kept in jail before the case is resolved, the person is assessed a “per diem” charge — a kind of daily rent — during that period; the charges kick in if the person is convicted or given a deferred sentence. The cost varies by county, but can be more than $50 a day. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections doesn’t impose such fees.

Oklahoma County Jail
Inmates in the Oklahoma County Jail, as well as in many other county jails, are assessed a “per diem” charge, a kind of daily rent, for days spent there before conviction if they ultimately they are convicted.

Counties won the right to assess such charges under a law approved in 1999. A $3,000 cap was set in 2004, then removed in 2005. The per-diem fees have mired many inmates in thousands of dollars of debt, especially if they were jailed in more than one county.

James Wood, of Oklahoma City, was arrested in McIntosh County in 2010 and charged with drug trafficking and intent to manufacture methamphetamine. He lived in Little Rock, Ark., at the time, so no bail bonds firm would agree to post his $100,000 bond. He couldn’t afford a lawyer. While awaiting trial, he sat in jail for 10 months. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 11 years in prison plus fines and court costs.

Wood was released in December and is staying at Exodus House, a nonprofit that helps ex-offenders re-enter society. He owes $14,169 in fines and fees, including $12,848 to McIntosh County Jail, which charged about $40 a day.

“I asked them in the end, ‘You guys are giving me this time. The fines are one thing, but will you work with me on these incarceration costs?’ They refused,” Wood said. “I can’t afford a lawyer, but I can afford this? It doesn’t make sense.”

Upon arrest, defendants also begin accumulating court fees, which take effect on conviction.

Depending on the case, suspects can incur fees for lab analysis ($165), mental health if the crime involves drugs ($150), fingerprinting ($5), the law library ($6), the filing of bonds ($35), jail booking ($25), and payments to revolving funds for drug education ($155) and medical liability ($11). Convicted persons also must pay court filing fees tied to specific charges, such as $443 for a felony count of driving under the influence.

The fees are not always high, but can pile up. Since 1992, when voters approved a state question limiting the Legislature’s ability to raise taxes, the number of criminal justice fees has risen from 23 to 63, court-fee schedules show.

In Prison, With Fines

Despite the dozens of fees, it is the fines that most often sink non-violent offenders in tens of thousands of dollars of debt.

Those fines are especially high in drug-related cases.

A conviction for sale or distribution of 25 to 1,000 pounds of hashish or concentrates comes with a maximum $100,000 fine. A third misdemeanor conviction of possessing marijuana paraphernalia brings a maximum one year in prison and $10,100 fine.

Oklahoma County District Court Special Judge Donald Easter, who presides over the court’s cost docket, said most large fines associated with crimes like drug trafficking are unlikely to be paid in full because most offenders can’t afford it. Such fines can run $10,000 to more than $30,000 per count.

“We’re not Miami. They don’t drive cigar boats around here,” Easter said. “Very rarely are you going to collect that 30-grand.”

If the court were to demand payment of such fines in full, a higher court would likely overturn it, Easter said.

In prison, an inmate’s ability to pay off fines and fees is hampered by additional fees and costs, records show.

Offenders must pay charges of as much as $20 to make a telephone call home. Their families pay per-transaction fees — $6 to $9 in state prisons — to deposit funds in an inmate’s account. In the meantime, offenders are paid relatively little for jobs they perform in prisons. Lorenz said she earned 65 cents an hour as a darkroom technician for Oklahoma Correctional Industries, which uses prison labor to produce items ranging from furniture to smokers.

Getting Out

Most inmates dream about the day they’ll be released from prison. But getting out comes with additional costs.

Released with a few possessions, proceeds from their mandatory savings account and a one-way bus ticket, inmates typically must report within 72 hours to the county where they were sentenced and arrange to pay their fines and fees.

Many ex-prisoners are poor and have trouble getting a job. In Oklahoma, between 80 percent and 90 percent of criminal defendants have income low enough to qualify for a public defender, according to the Second Chance Advocacy Program, a diversion program for female offenders. Regardless, the state and counties require released prisoners to share the cost of re-entry services.

Offenders on probation must pay up to $80 a month for supervision. Those required to wear an electronic monitoring device pay a monthly monitoring fee of up to $300.

If a defendant is sentenced to Drug Court, an alternative sentencing program for drug addicts, the person faces between $80 and $100 per month in fees for drug testing.

Then there are possibly hundreds of dollars in costs to reinstate a driver’s license, which people need to find and get to work. Some offenders have seen their licenses revoked or suspended several times, multiplying the fees. Ex-offenders may also owe back child support, which in prison is calculated based on an hourly wage well above their earnings in prison.

Oklahoma County Public Defender Robert Ravitz called the amounts of fines and fees “outrageous.”

“I understand there should be a financial cost,” he said. But “instead, it should be a percentage of an individual’s income. All you are doing now is making a servant out of the person … If the person is so frustrated because they can’t pay the costs, they will return to crime.”

In all but one of Oklahoma’s 77 counties, offenders can be put back in jail for not being able to pay their fines and fees, Ravitz said. The exception is Oklahoma County.

Former inmate Robin Wertz, released from prison in 2007, faced $25,000 in fines after being convicted of several drug-related charges.

Robin Wertz
Robin Wertz said she was “one day away” from selling drugs for to pay her fines when she got a call offering her a job. Credit: M. Scott Carter / Oklahoma Watch

“I didn’t know what to do … I couldn’t find a job,” said Wertz, of Oklahoma City.

Wertz, now 51, said she was “one day away” from selling drugs for quick money when she got a call from the nonprofit Exodus House offering her a job.

Wertz has continued to pay on her fines. She got them reduced to about $6,000 and expects to pay it off this year. She noted that typically the clients she sees at Exodus House owe about $6,000 per county and had convictions in three to five counties.

Easter, the judge, said he tries to work with ex-offenders who are financially strapped but still show up in court behind on payments.

“If they walk up there and don’t have their GED and have worked temporary services all their lives, to think you’re going to get $50 a month out of them is crazy,” Easter said.

Easter says he tries to determine what they can pay monthly and then orders them to return in two years. He sometimes suspends payments temporarily but never revokes them.

In Lorenz’s case, the governor’s commutation didn’t erase even a dollar of her $91,000 debt, although it canceled the rest of her prison sentence.

“It’s a big gray area,” Brady Henderson, legal counsel for the Oklahoma branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said of commutations and fines. “It’s an area of law that hasn’t really been explored.”

Revenue Needs

A large factor driving the expansion of fees and fine collection is pursuit of revenue, records and interviews show.

According to a 2012 report by the National Conference of State Court Administrators, appropriations from the Oklahoma Legislature to district courts dropped by 60 percent between 2008 and 2012.

“As we had budget cuts from the Legislature, it forced us to try and collect as much as we could from those we could in order to fund the judiciary,” Supreme Court Justice Combs said.

The Supreme Court does not report how much in fines and fees is collected in criminal cases each year. A 2014 study by the court found that from 2007 to 2014, $1.2 billion was collected in both civil filing fees and criminal fines. Of that, more than $777 million, or about two-thirds, was earmarked for the judicial system. The other $414 million was for non-court-related programs, such as the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Tourism and Recreation.

In Oklahoma County District Court, offenders paid the county nearly $28 million in fines and fees from 2011 to 2014.

Ravitz, the public defender, maintains that reform is needed so that an offender’s ability to pay is taken into account.

“No money should be assessed or required to be paid for a program until a judge can decide what that person can legitimately afford. That’s what I want to go back to,” Ravitz said.

For Lorenz, paying her debt for the drug crimes now consists of mailing a $50 check every month to the Tulsa County Court Clerk and another check to the Rogers County Court Clerk. She said she feels lucky to have a job, but never expects to pay off the $91,000.

“I’ll die before I ever pay it all off,” Lorenz said. “But at least after I’m dead, I won’t have to worry about it.”

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