Tulsa Jail seeing rise in bookings from failure to pay court fines
BY CURTIS KILLMAN World Staff Writer
Monday, November 12, 2012
11/12/12 at 9:41 AM
The number of people being booked into the Tulsa Jail with warrants for failing to pay court fines and fees has been creeping up in recent years, a Tulsa World analysis of jail booking data shows.
The number of such bookings for failing to pay warrants are up about 12 percent since 2009, the analysis shows.
Of about 22,000 new jail bookings in 2011, nearly 6,400 inmates owed money to either state or local courts, the analysis shows.
The number arrested on failure to pay warrants so far in 2012 is on track to match or eclipse those jailed under similar circumstances in 2011.
The increased number of jail bookings has contributed to the swelling of the jail population in recent months. Court officials have reacted by granting early release for some prisoners.
While some inmates may have new criminal allegations with which to contend, some were jailed just on failure to pay warrants.
Such was the case for Jerry Conard who was arrested Oct. 10 on warrants for failing to pay outstanding court fines and court costs, some dating back nearly 20 years.
Conard, who owed over $7,000, was released from jail about a week later under the early release jail program with just a promise to make good on his debt.
In a telephone conversation, Conard said he hopes to eventually pay off the debt.
But the 56-year-old admits it will take a while since his only income is a monthly government disability check of less than $700.
"They want that money or they will put me in jail," Conard said.
Conard and others like him who owe are released from jail if they agree to make payments to a private collection agency that contracts with Tulsa County.
Inmates are given 48 hours after release from jail to report to Aberdeen Enterprises II and make payment arrangements.
While an inmate may be freed without paying the fines and costs, "the sad news is it's going to cost the defendants more money," said Tulsa County Court Clerk Sally Howe Smith.
Collection fees totaling 30 percent of the fines and costs are added to the total owed.
If the amount isn't paid, a bench warrant will be issued and with it an $80 warrant fee for each case.
Smith said she wasn't sure how much money is owed in outstanding warrants issued for unpaid court fines and fees.
Pressed, Smith declined to provide a dollar figure.
She said any figure quoted would be "extremely inflated" because it would overrepresent how much the court could actually collect.
Judges often assess fines, fees and court costs in cases where the accused is sent to prison for life or long prison terms. Collection in those cases are rare, Smith said.
While failure to pay warrant arrests have been increasing, Tulsa County Court revenue collections from criminal and traffic-related cases declined from 2008 through 2010.
That trend was reversed last year when revenues in 2011 increased slightly. In 2011 Tulsa County collected to $12.3 million from criminal and traffic filings compared to $12 million the prior year.
Many Tulsa Jail arrestees owe both state and city court fines.
Tulsa Municipal Court records indicate the amount owed to the city has doubled in recent years.
In October, the city had issued bench warrants for adjudicated, but unpaid fines and fees totaling $5.2 million.
As a comparison, the city was owed $2.5 million by the end of 2010 for unpaid fines and court fees from adjudicated cases, records supplied by the Municipal Court indicate.
Meanwhile the city has collected $6,723,721 in the past three years from adjudicated cases where warrants were issued for failing to pay, records show.
The increase in failure to pay warrant arrests is part of the reason for the Tulsa Jail exceeding its capacity in recent months.
In late August, jail officials asked local judges to expedite the release of inmates who were incarcerated for nonviolent crimes.
Jail officials at the time attributed the poor economy as a factor for the increase in the jail population.
Smith said those who owe can ask the court for relief.
"They can go to the court and if they truly are indigent ...then the court can make a finding that they are temporarily indigent or that they are completely indigent and waive all their costs and then it goes away," Smith said.
Such requests are rare though because "a lot of people don't ask for it," Smith said.
Meanwhile, Conard says he is determined to pay off his court debt even if it is at the rate of $50 a month.
"I'm going to have to make them somehow," Conard said of the payments.
Tulsa County District Court receipts
(from criminal, misdemeanor and traffic cases)
2007: $11.8 million
2008: $13.1 million
2009: $12.8 million
2010: $12 million
2011: $12.2 million
2012: $10.3 million
Original Print Headline: Court-fine arrests increasing
Curtis Killman 918-581-8471
Of about 22,000 new jail bookings in 2011, nearly 6,400 inmates owed money to either state or local courts, the analysis shows. Tulsa World file