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.”