Prisoners of Debt
This is the second in a series of stories reported jointly by Oklahoma Watch and KGOU Radio.

The court fees and fines that many nonviolent criminal offenders in Oklahoma must pay can be bewildering, especially if the offender makes a misstep, such as failing to pay on time.

An Oklahoma Watch investigation found that fines and fees have steeped many ex-offenders in debt, making it more difficult for them to build a new life after release from prison.

The case of Michael Harveson of Oklahoma City shows how confusion and poor decisions can keep an offender in arrears on court costs, despite the person’s efforts at times to make good on all of the debt.

In June 2009, Harveson, now 34, pleaded guilty in Tulsa County to the felony manufacture of controlled drugs and misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia. The court sentenced Harveson to four years in prison and four years suspended. He was also ordered to pay court costs and fined $750.

When Harveson was released on Dec. 22, 2010, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections ordered him to report to the Tulsa County District Court within two weeks to set up a payment plan for the fines and fees he owed to the court, court records show.

His total bill in fines, fees and court costs came to $1,942. However, after Harveson failed to report to the court, the judge issued a bench warrant, triggering additional fees and pushing the amount owed to $2,022, according to court records.

The court sent Harveson’s case to a private collections agency, adding a $611 collections fee to Harveson’s bill. It also seized his income tax refund, using it to pay small parts of the collections fee and the $2,022 owed.

In early June 2011, Harveson was arrested for failure to pay. He then paid the court the $2,022 that the bench warrant said he owed. He said he kept the receipt with him, just in case.

However, Harveson said he wasn’t told that he still owed $466 as part of his initial fees.

He would soon find out the hard way.

On Dec. 13, 2011, the court issued a second bench warrant for Harveson for failure to pay the remaining balance. The bench warrant triggered an additional $80 in fees, bringing the total amount the bench warrant said he owed to $546.

Eight days later, the court added a collections fee of $24, bringing the total debt to  $570.

Law officers arrested Harveson again in May 2012 for failure to pay.

“When I got arrested the second time, I showed (the officers) the receipt and said ‘I’ve paid this in full.’ They said, ‘Well, you owe on fines for endeavoring to manufacture,’” Harveson said.

Harveson paid the $546 that the bench warrant said he owed.

However, Harveson wasn’t aware that he still owed the additional $24 collection fee. It was the closest he came to paying off the entire amount of his court debt.

In July 2012, Harveson failed to report to his probation officer. An application to revoke his suspended sentence and a bench warrant were issued, adding more fees.

By May 2013, he had failed to appear in court two more times and was arrested each time on bench warrants, which raised his court bill again to $272

In August 2013, the court revoked Harveson’s suspended sentence and sent him back to prison, where he would pay on his court bill in small increments from his prisoner work pay.

In late 2014, Harveson was released from prison again and went to Exodus House, a nonprofit in Oklahoma City that helps ex-offenders re-enter society. He said his attempts to navigate the system have been confusing and disheartening.

“I don’t understand how I could pay $2,022 in fines, they release me from jail saying, “Paid in full’ — and then five months later they charge me $557 in fines. They arrest me and I pay in full, and then they say I owe ($272),” Harveson said. “Nobody does well being broke, especially not a drug addict … What’s the easiest way for a drug addict to make money?”

Harveson said the system is “a giant revolving door.” Despite this, he is trying to straighten out both the situation and his future.

“I’m really trying to do good. I’ve never tried so hard in my life to do good,” Harveson said.

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