Prisoners of Debt
This is the seventh in a series of stories reported jointly by Oklahoma Watch and KGOU Radio. The latest segments from KGOU reporter Kate Carlton Greer can be found at

More than two decades ago, after Oklahoma voters approved a measure that made passage of tax hikes more difficult, the Legislature and state agencies turned to other ways to help pay for operations and programs.

Lawmakers began raising fees and fines and enacting new ones. They were spurred by the approval of State Question 640, which required that all tax increases be approved by either a three-fourths vote of the House and Senate or a majority vote in the next general election.

In the courts, the number of fees began climbing — from 23 in 1992, when the state question passed, to 63 in 2014, court fee schedules show. In 2000, for example, the state imposed a $15 fee on all criminal offenders and a minimum $500 penalty for driving with a revoked or suspended driver’s license. Fines for speeding and DUI jumped by as much as 100 percent.

The effect was to shift more of the cost of government to convicted criminals, traffic violators, inmates’ families and others, some former legislators say.

Former state Sen. Bernest Cain, an Oklahoma City Democrat who served in office from 1979 until 2006, said the state question and a growing “tough on crime” attitude were at the core of that cost shift.

“At lot of this was from (State Question) 640,” Cain said. “It put the pressure on people to come up with different ways to fund things they wanted to do. They just shifted the cost over because nobody cares about criminals. No one is going to fight for them.”

Some of the laws that reflect the state’s movement toward a heavier fine and fee structure:

* Senate Bill 112, in 1999: Toughened the penalty against people who forfeit bond when charged with an offense; also added the Council on Law Enforcement Education Training to the list of entities receiving state fines and fees.

* House Bill 1361, in 2000: Allowed the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to seek reimbursement from offenders for cleaning up illegal drug lab sites; gave court clerks part of the funds.

* SB 636, in 2005: Assessed charges against offenders for the cost of emergency medical treatment.

*HB 1242, in 2005: Allowed judges to require an electronic monitoring device as a condition of pretrial release and made offenders pay fees for supervision of the monitoring.

* HB 1328, in 2013: Imposed a $40 “District Attorney” fee on offenders.

Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasaw, who helped write HB 1328, believes that offenders should shoulder a portion of cost of the state’s judicial and public safety systems.

“I don’t believe they should be nickel and dimed to death, but they need to pay their share,” he said.

Biggs said the DA fee was a way to make sure the state’s district attorneys had additional funding. Previous legislatures didn’t allocate enough money for public safety, he said.

“I don’t believe the district attorneys were funded in the past like they should have been,” Biggs said. “The DAs were looking for creative ways to keep their offices open.”

Supreme Court Vice Chief Justice Douglas Combs said state funding for the judicial system has been reduced, forcing the courts to look elsewhere for funds.

“We’re trying to do more with less money,” Combs said. “As long as we are relying on the court system’s ability to collect from those who have been primarily in the criminal justice system, you’re looking at continuing to have the bulk of financing on the backs of those who can probably least afford it.”

The danger with that formula, Combs said, is that some point the court system is seeking the same dollar that everybody else is seeking.

“You’ve got competing counties,” he said. “A defendant may owe money in Oklahoma County, Pottawatomie County, Cleveland County, Payne County, Jackson County. You are all trying to collect the same dollar for some of these people. There is a point where it will reach a point of no return — people simply don’t have enough money.”

Former Speaker of the House Kris Steele, who heads a nonprofit that assists people who were incarcerated, said while the cost shift is popular with many voters, it could be making the public less safe.

If the only way an ex-offender can pay his or her fees and fines is through criminal activity, than the person will return to crime, Steele said.

University of Oklahoma political science professor Keith Gaddie said the general public tends to support a “tough-on-crime” attitude.

“It’s a popular mood,” Gaddie said. “The public is not going to have any difficulty with you putting the cost of incarceration on who you incarcerate.”

The public probably isn’t aware of the degree of debt that many offenders incur because of criminal-justice fines and fees, he said.

State Rep., Scott Inman, D-Del City, said lawmakers are moving the cost of the correctional system on to the backs of people who can’t pay for it.

“We’re looking at offenders like they are ATMs,” Inman said.

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