A bill that would reduce court fines and fees associated with criminal convictions is gaining support in the legislature. 

Senate Bill 1458 by Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, unanimously cleared the upper chamber on March 14. Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow, is carrying the proposal in the House. 

Six state agencies, including the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and the Administrative Office of the Courts, rely partially on court collections to fund operations. Thompson’s bill proposes that the state instead funds these agencies entirely through direct appropriations. 

Senate Bill 1458 would also prohibit district attorneys from charging a $40 a month probation fee. Individuals on probation would be required to pay at most $20 a month to support the costs of their supervision.

Justice reform advocates have long criticized Oklahoma’s court funding system as being inefficient and overly dependent on collections from mostly low-income people. Court fines and fees accounted for 66% to 90% of district court funding between 2007 and 2019, a Tulsa World analysis found.

Speaking on the Senate floor last week, Thompson said the estimated cost of the proposal is $13 million in Fiscal Year 2023 and $26 million to $28 million in Fiscal Year 2024. Lawmakers could use American Rescue Plan funds to ease the transition, The Frontier reported last month. 

“I definitely believe someone who is convicted of breaking the law should be held accountable, but the current system of funding courts through fees can actually prevent individuals from turning their lives around,” Thompson said in a statement.  “When they can’t pay, then the courts don’t get funded, warrants are issued, and people are arrested to get them to pay something they couldn’t afford in the first place.  We need to help citizens obey the laws of the land without being overly burdensome.”

When I heard that this bill passed the Senate, the first person I thought of was Robert Lavern, a 53-year-old native of Talala who was convicted of drug possession with intent to distribute in 2020. 

I first spoke with Lavern in October 2020, weeks after he was released from the William S. Key Correctional Facility in Fort Supply. Our conversations initially centered around his experience catching COVID-19 behind bars and recovering from a severe case of the virus. 

Over the next several months, as Lavern worked to reintegrate into society and stay sober, our conservations shifted to the conditions of his probation and fees he was required to pay. A $40 monthly supervision fee is a lot to pay when you’re between jobs, he told me. 

I called Lavern on Monday to catch up and get his thoughts on Senate Bill 1458. He told me he’s pleased that lawmakers are working to make life a little easier for people coming out of the justice system. 

“The fines make things tough,” Lavern said. “They want you to be rehabilitated and get out and be a thriving model citizen, paving your own way, but they have their hand out the whole damn way.” 

A similar proposal, Senate Bill 1532 by Rep. Julie Daniels, unanimously cleared the Senate last week and is eligible to be heard in the House. If enacted, courts could waive fines and fees if a person has made regular installment payments over several years. 

I’ll be keeping a close eye on criminal justice legislation progresses over the next two months. Have thoughts or questions about bills moving through the legislature or other justice-related issues? Email me at Kross@Oklahomawatch.org or send me a DM on Twitter.

What I’m Reading This Week

  • Do Texas Prison Conditions Violate Human Rights Standards? One Scottish Court Says Yes. Edinburgh judge Nigel Ross refused to authorize the extradition of a man charged with aggravated assualt in Texas, citing persisent understaffing, sweltering temperatures and inadequate food in the state’s prison system. [The Marshall Project]
  • Reduction of Court Costs For Juveniles Unanimously Approved by Oklahoma House: House Bill 3205 by Rep. John Talley, R-Stillwater, would lower fines and supervision fees assessed to juveniles. It now heads to the Senate for consideration. [News 9]
  • Opinion: Oklahoma Needs an Innocence Commission: Shaun Hittle, a private investigator and former Oklahoma Watch staff writer, makes the case that Oklahoma needs an innocence commission to investigate possible wrongful convictions. [NonDoc]
  • Firing-Squad Executions Get the Greenlight in South Carolina: After struggling for several years to obtain lethal injection drugs, prison officials in South Carolina could soon carry out executions by firing squad. Several Oklahoma death row prisoners have requested execution by firing squad as an alternative to lethal injection. [The Associated Press]

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