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Day 3: Reform advocates want Oklahoma to halt driver's license suspension as an incentive to pay tickets, court debt

Failure to pay fines and fees for everything from court costs associated with criminal offenses to simple traffic tickets is ensnaring tens of thousands of Oklahomans each year in a “vicious cycle” of poverty and punishment, according to state policy reform advocates.

In Oklahoma, one of the consequences of failing to pay court debts can be the loss of a driver’s license, which can have a direct impact on someone’s ability to pay their outstanding debt.

In 2018, there were 19,280 driver’s license suspensions issued in Oklahoma for failure to pay and another 22,896 for failure to appear in court, according to data collected from the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety.

That one-year total of 42,176 suspensions doesn’t take into account the suspensions still unresolved from previous years.

“Are we even offering people a way out of this process or is it an illusion?” said Kristina Saleh, program director at Still She Rises, a north Tulsa-based nonprofit that represents mothers in criminal and civil legal matters. “Access to a driver’s license is part of a larger theme in the criminal justice system — it’s the dollar sign being conflated with criminal justice.”

What Saleh refers to as the “on-ramp into this vortex” for so many Oklahomans often looks something like this:

You get a speeding ticket in a school zone. You’re convicted and assessed court costs and fines, but you can’t afford to pay hundreds of dollars within 30 days, so your license is suspended.

You keep driving to meet your basic needs — to work for employment, to take your child to school, to buy groceries or to go to the doctor — and you get pulled over. Now, you’re charged with driving on a suspended license, landing you additional court fines and fees, attorney fees and even jail time

You’re left with a conviction record, unpaid court debt, no driver’s license and likely loss of employment.

“In most cases, we are prosecuting the poorest and most desperate among us,” Saleh said. “They don’t have enough money to pay their fines and fees. Or they don’t have transportation, so they miss their court date. The only way to pay that money is to earn money or to access social service programs that provide assistance. The problem is you need a car to drive to a job or to get social services. To strip away the ability to drive and then to criminalize the lack of proper documentation to drive, that’s where the vicious cycle comes in.”

A new national campaign called “Free to Drive” is bringing together legal, policy and research organizations with business leaders to advocate for limiting restrictions on driving privileges to dangerous driving, rather than a means of coercing payment of court debt or punishment for missing a court appearance.

Ten other states, including Texas, have already implemented policy changes in the last few years and there are early indicators of success, said Priya Sarathy Jones, national campaign director at the Washington, D.C.-based Fines and Fees Justice Center.

“Currently, 44 states suspend, revoke or do nonrenewals of driver’s licenses for failure to pay. Most of those same states also do it for failure to appear,” Jones said. “This particular issue is a very nonpartisan issue. We are working with folks all over the political spectrum on this. For example, the ACLU and Americans for Prosperity (a conservative advocacy group) are working together as a team, collectively, to get this done in Montana.”

Earlier this year, Texas repealed its Driver Responsibility Program that left more than 1 million people unable to keep or renew their driver’s licenses because of their inability to pay annual fees — ranging from $100 to $2,000 depending on the offense — on top of the price of traffic tickets.

“A lot of groups that work in Texas came together and said this is not good and it’s harming a ton of folks. They forgave the debt — $2 billion — and reinstated all of the licenses that were suspended as a result of this reason alone,” Jones said.

The next reform push in Texas, she added, is a remaining program called OmniBase that gives local jurisdictions the authority to prevent people from renewing their driver’s license until they’ve paid tickets issued by local authorities. For example, Dallas participates but Fort Worth does not.

“This is a poverty issue,” Jones said, referring to the overall issue. “You get this ticket — rolling through a red light, whatever the moving violation — and if you can’t pay those fines and fees this can happen to you.

“In some places, even a parking ticket can trigger it. That ticket across the country can be as little as $100, which can be a lot for some people, and as much as $500 in other places. We know most people don’t have $400 for an emergency. The more economically challenged you are, the harder it is for you to pay.

Advocates for policy change in Oklahoma include workers at Tulsa’s Women in Recovery, a program operated by Family & Children’s Services that provides an alternative to incarceration for women facing long-term prison sentences.

Mimi Tarrasch, chief program officer, said most of the women who enter the program do not have a driver’s license and helping them get it restored is critical but very tricky and sometimes impossible.

“We can help them navigate the (Oklahoma Department of Public Safety) system, but there’s a lack of consistency. It depends on who you speak with,” Tarrasch said. “When we’re helping to turn people’s lives around and we get them treatment, and education and skill-building, we want them to get to a job and to reunify with their children. It is so basic and necessary to be successful.”

Rachel Delcour, a court liaison with Women in Recovery, said in most cases, paying large sums of money is the only way to get back to driving legally.

“For others, they could pay a million dollars and not get their driver’s license back because there is an expiration date on the suspension set by DPS. No matter what she does, until that date, there’s no remedy — there’s no amount of money, no treatment she can complete — to get her license back until that date. For one of our clients, that’s six years,” Delcour said. “It does not appear to be consistent from one client to the next. I’ve requested a guide or rule book that could be used, but DPS has never responded with one.”

Sarah Stewart, a spokeswoman at DPS, said the state agency simply follows state statutes and relies on information provided by courts.

“Suspensions caused by a failure to appear or failure to pay fines, fees or costs, remain in place until the court notifies the department that the financial obligation has been satisfied, or the individual provides proof of payment,” Stewart said. “The department has no additional documentation of procedures beyond the various statutes dealing with failure to appear or failure to pay fines, fees or costs.”

This lack of driving privileges creates a quandary that Women in Recovery wishes its clients weren’t put in: To figure out how to meet their basic needs by not driving at all or to drive illegally.

“It’s such a barrier for the women,” Delcour said. “They are just going to drive without it. They are trying to change their lives and live a legal life and make different choices than they made before. This is putting them in a position to not be able to take care of themselves and their children.”

Special Report Day 3: Reform advocates want Oklahoma to halt driver's license suspension as an incentive to pay tickets, court debt

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Day 3: Feed the kids or pay court fines and fees? One Tulsa woman hopes for a day she doesn't face that decision

During a recent court appearance, Tulsa County Special Judge David Guten was told by a single mother of three that she had two choices: pay a portion of her outstanding traffic debt of about $650 or make sure she and her children have food and a place to call home.

The previous time Jackie spoke to Guten, she had been in the Tulsa County jail for about three days on failure-to-pay warrants several years old stemming from 2012 tickets for driving with a suspended license and failure to yield. A police officer in a neighboring city took her to the jail overnight on a September weekday after entering her name in a records database to determine whether she had warrants, an experience she said was humiliating but familiar.

“There are other people out there who are doing major crime and then there are people who really are just trying to make ends meet and take care of their kids,” said Jackie, who requested her full name be withheld for safety reasons.

“If you are driving to work and back or to go get groceries or to take your kids to the doctor or your kids to school, or if you’re trying to get to school so you can better your life and take care of their kids, do not put them in jail and have them lose everything and have to start all over.”

Jackie was one of 33 people who entered the Tulsa County jail solely for debt owed on previously filed traffic complaints between Sept. 24 to 30. The week was randomly selected by the Tulsa World for analysis of failure to pay arrests.

The 326 people booked at the jail during those days had a combined 805 complaints alleged against them, ranging from traffic debt like Jackie to first-degree murder.

Another 33 people went to jail during that time only on warrants for applications to accelerate deferred sentences or revoke suspended sentences based on probation violations without documentation of new criminal charges being filed against them.

“There’s days that I will take a bath two, maybe three times, where I just go in there and cry just because I can’t let (my kids) see me like that,” Jackie said of her situation.

A Tulsa World reporter observed the cost docket on which Jackie appeared, during which Guten — who took his position as a Special Judge earlier this year — granted those present a $100 credit toward their outstanding balances. Beginning in September, Guten began presiding over a daily bond docket that operates on the weekends in hopes of making contact with everyone in custody within 24 hours of their arrest.

Many of the people on the docket the World observed had been arrested sometime in September on failure-to-pay warrants. An elderly woman accompanied by an attorney from Still She Rises, which serves women in north Tulsa, had debt tied to a court case from the 1990s.

The majority of the debts owed by the 33 people jailed with outstanding fee balances between Sept. 24 and 30 were between $300 and $1,000. The oldest court case debt documented in arrest logs that week was a misdemeanor from 2003.

‘I’m not gonna let my kids go hungry’

On the day Jackie was arrested, jail records showed she was one of six people jailed for nonpayment of court costs, according to a review of hourly booking logs.

Just more than 10% of the 805 charges listed against the 326 people booked from Sept. 24 to 30 were for driving under suspension, court costs or not having proper proof of vehicle insurance. The highest number of court cost-based arrests was nine on Sept. 27, and the highest number of probation violation arrests was nine on Sept. 26.

When Guten spoke to Jackie about her finances in late October, he told her he would suspend payment requirements for the time being. In doing so, he said he did not want the legal system to present a barrier for her to pay for food, housing or child care and wanted to give her time to sort out her arrangements for public assistance.

Guten set a review date for January, and Jackie said she’s hopeful she will pass an exam so she can be placed in a medical assistant program at Tulsa Tech, where she began attending in November through the school’s Project HIRE, or Helping Individuals Reach Employment, program.

But even if she’s successful, she said she’s unsure she will be able to afford the cost of getting her driver’s license reinstated. Jackie said a previous missed obligation to keep car insurance led to the suspension of her license, which began the cycle of tickets for such offenses as driving under suspension and failure to carry insurance.

“I pay lot rent, which is 443,” Jackie said of her residence in east Tulsa. “I also pay my electric. I get food stamps. And a 30-day bus pass is like $45. So all of my money is gone. I honestly don’t know how I’m gonna do it. And with me being in school there’s no way I can do community service (instead of paying.)”

Then, she said, she became the subject of increased scrutiny over her children’s school attendance, which was a challenge due to her transportation limitations. She said she was anxious because of one such warrant outside of Tulsa County, though she questioned the nature of the filing because court records show the charge was filed during the summer.

A review of court records shows she does not have any felony or misdemeanor convictions.

“I’ll get my warrants taken away and make (payments) for six months, but then it gets to a point of ‘Am I gonna pay my rent?’ or ‘Am I gonna feed my kids’ or ‘Am I gonna pay my tickets?’ ” Jackie said. “And I’m not gonna let my kids go hungry.”

Much debt left unpaid

The Oklahoma Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank, has studied the assessment and collection of court fines and fees throughout the state. While there is no statewide data on how much court debt is outstanding, the organization has previously reported an Oklahoma County Judge said his office only expects to collect between 5% and 11% of the amount owed.

The Tulsa County Court Clerk’s Office said it did not have an exact number on how much money it needs to collect from defendants, but second deputy Randy Proffitt told the World a significant number of people have fallen behind on their obligations. He said the paperwork created by those individuals results in a lag between when a person falls in arrears and when they are put on notice they could be arrested on a failure to pay warrant.

“Ultimately what I would want is for people to be, number one, non-fearful of us and allow themselves to use us as an ally to straighten out their payments,” Proffitt said. The clerk’s office does not have the same level of discretion as Guten with regard to reducing a person’s debt, but Proffitt said people in and out of custody on cost warrants can pay $250 that will go toward their balance regardless of whether they were put in jail.

Today, Jackie takes the bus rather than risking contact with law enforcement while going to class, going to the doctor or buying groceries. She said shortly before Thanksgiving that she wasn’t able to afford a meal for her children and instead encouraged at least one of them to find a friend to eat with that day.

But most of all she’s anxious about what will happen if she is jailed again and loses access to her supplemental assistance or is forced to leave her home. The father of her teenage children does not provide financial assistance, she said.

“I have learned to be really happy with the very little that we do have, even if we only eat once a day for the last week of the month,” Jackie said. When asked what her ideal situation would be, she said, “I want to be in a home, have a car with a license, have no warrants, no tickets and a steady income where I did not have to worry about the police.”