Onerous court debts can create a vicious cycle, especially for impoverished people trying to orchestrate positive and productive lives. Inability to pay either puts them behind bars or they return to crime to pay the bills.
“For a person who may be justice-involved and on the lower socioeconomic scale, the punitive consequences for the inability to pay these fees and fines lends itself to additional involvement in the criminal justice system,” said Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. “And we reach a point where we begin to criminalize poverty. And that should be unconscionable for any Oklahoman.”
And the judicial branch itself may be tottering toward a financial crater as criminal justice reforms take root, given the state’s dependence upon court collections to help prop up government.
Fines, fees and court costs assessed to defendants have grown 27% since fiscal year 2007 as state and local government agencies have become increasingly reliant upon them as a revenue source.
Notably, those court collections for entities not related to the judicial branch have grown to 52 designated funds, up from 34 in fiscal year 2007. In recent years, lawmakers additionally have imposed two administrative charges that together tag defendants with an extra 25% of all fees collected by the courts for executive branch purposes.
Oklahoma’s dependence on court collections to underwrite not just the judicial system but state and local executive branch agencies is apparent in documents. Executive branch functions implement and carry out government operations and are separate from the courts, which adjudicate matters of law.
Some of the designated collection streams flow outside of the government, too.
And how those collections ultimately are disbursed is convoluted and difficult to track.
State or local executive branch agencies are recipients of one-third of the about $160 million in annual collections of fines, fees and court costs, according to Oklahoma Supreme Court records.
Total collections in fiscal year 2007 were $132 million, rising to a high of $168 million in FY 2017. Annual judicial branch fees rose from $87 million to $111 million in that span, with yearly executive branch fees also climbing from $45 million to $57 million.
Nearly $590 million was collected from FY 2007-2017 for programs not related to the district courts.
“I understand that there has to be consequences for violations of the law, but I think the idea is appropriate consequences,” Steele said. “And it appears to me Oklahoma has some of the most extensive and egregious fines and fees.”
Steele called it “just mind-boggling” the amount of fines and fees that have been imposed on those in the criminal justice system in the past decade. He said the state must help Oklahomans move forward from troubled pasts in a positive and productive manner, not design a system that sets people up for failure.
Jari Askins is in her fourth year as administrative director of the courts, responsible in part for monitoring legislation and budget matters affecting trial and appellate courts.
Askins said that rising collections on their own aren’t indicators of an influx of money to fund salaries and operations. She said monies collected for those purposes actually have stagnated or declined the past couple of years.
Askins reasoned that “designated fees” — or assessments collected for specific uses — have increased, while salary and operations sources haven’t kept up comparatively. She also noted that recent criminal justice reform measures have reduced the number of felony filings, which generate more funds than misdemeanor cases.
But that doesn’t mean some of those “designated fees” haven’t been tapped during exceptionally austere financial periods for the state.
“Fees raised for a specific purpose aren’t supposed to be used for anything else. And so we’re trying to be really careful in making sure that’s what we do,” Askins said. “But when you’ve got a revenue failure, and the Legislature says use it, you use it to not lay people off.”
Askins said the answer isn’t to eliminate all collections, because cases are still filed and there are costs of moving cases through the judicial system.
But her first goal — and she believes some lawmakers harbor similar aims — is to wean the state off executive branch fees by increasing appropriations to those agencies in the next few years. That would lessen the burden on defendants and simplify the collection process.
“(Oklahoma Supreme Court justices) are concerned that we have reached the limit of being able to ask any more of our judges and just cannot in good conscience go any farther in trying to do more with the court system run primarily on collections of fines and costs,” Askins said.
Where the money goes
To help pay the government’s bills, state legislators in recent years approved administrative fees in two instances. Those fees total 25% on assessments collected by the courts for executive branch functions.
County court clerks in November 2012 began levying a 10% administrative charge on all fees collected by their courts for agencies other than the courts and not deposited into the court fund.
Effective in July 2016, there was an additional 15% administrative fee imposed upon defendants in the same manner. It is directed toward funding the district courts.
“The costs imposed on a criminal defendant to run the ordinary, customary obligations of government is just not a good way to do business,” said Bill Kellough, a former Tulsa County District Court judge.
Kellough is a member of a working group in Tulsa advocating for systemic reforms to how fines, fees and court costs are assessed and the manner in which they are collected.
He wants a comprehensive cost breakdown established before a defendant pleads out, instructions on how a judge determines the amount assessed, and guidelines for how collections are handled. He described the Legislature’s view of a defendant about to plead out as that of a captor lording over a subservient person.
“’We’ve got them in our grasp, so let’s see what we can extract from this person while they’re here,’ ” Kellough said. “It just keeps growing and growing and growing. You’re talking about a very compliant taxpayer at that point.”
The largest pot of specific funds for an executive branch agency is the sheriff fees in civil and criminal cases, at about $9 million to $10 million a year. Another is a patrol vehicle fund for the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, which accumulates about $3 million to $4 million per year.
Some agencies, such as Department of Public Safety and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations, have several designated funds. Sheriff collections form the largest footprint.
Sheriff’s offices collectively take in between $14 million and $17 million a year, predominantly for civil and criminal service fees, jail incarceration and bond fees, and courthouse security.
There is a $50 fee for service or attempted service by a sheriff’s office upon each person in a civil case unless the persons are at the same address.
In criminal cases, there is a $50 fee (or mileage/costs if greater) for service or attempted service of each writ, warrant, order, process, command or notice.
There’s a sheriff’s service fee of $5 in any criminal case in which a defendant is arrested on suspicion of violation of state law.
Defense attorney James Hinds is another member of the Tulsa working group. He is focusing on trying to make fees and court costs a civil matter, so defendants who are unable to pay aren’t threatened with jail.
Hinds said fees and court costs are entirely unrelated to criminal convictions — unlike fines — and should be handled in civil, not criminal, court. He said the line of presumed innocence is seemingly blurred the moment a person is picked up by law enforcement.
“And that blurred line is reflected in their costs to them and the spiral decline in their family situation, ability to keep jobs, pay child support and everything else,” Hinds said.
A fee that is becoming controversial is a 30% charge on the entire outstanding debt of a case transferred to a collections contractor hired by a county sheriff to locate and notify the person of misdemeanor or failure-to-pay warrants.
That charge is at the heart of a prominent lawsuit alleging the court debt collection system in Oklahoma is an unconstitutional “extortionate scheme.”
The lawsuit was filed by two Tulsa attorneys, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group and a Georgetown Law institute. It seeks class-action status against the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association, 54 county sheriffs and a private debt collection company.
The Tulsa-based collection company is Aberdeen Enterprizes II Inc. In court documents, the company stated that the plaintiffs’ alleged extortion conspiracy is “fundamentally flawed” and contrary to its own allegations.
Some court collection funding streams are funneled outside of government to either private companies or nonprofit groups.
The trauma care revolving fund collects about $3.5 million a year, of which 90% goes to reimburse trauma facilities, ambulance service providers and physicians for “uncompensated trauma care expenditures.” The other 10% goes toward state Health Department operations.
Court-appointed special advocates — from the agency CASA — are trained volunteers appointed by a judge to watch over and speak out for abused and neglected children in the system. The nonprofit program receives about $1.4 million each year in court collections.
“I do not have any quarrel with the relative merit of any of these costs or charges — many of them serve useful purposes,” Kellough said. “I just think it’s ill-advised to require that these costs be paid from criminal defendants.”
Funding for public defenders and prosecutors
District court funding for each of Oklahoma’s 77 counties predominantly comes from court collections.
Since fiscal year 2007, about 66% to 90% of annual district court funding came from court collections. The rest was appropriated by lawmakers from the state’s general fund, according to court records. In recent years, that percentage is in the 75% to 85% range.
The public defender offices in Tulsa and Oklahoma counties are bankrolled out of the same fund as district courts.
Corbin Brewster, chief Tulsa County public defender, said his office doesn’t hesitate to advocate for clients and assert their rights in hearings on an indigent defendant’s ability to pay fines and fees. But the situation is “inherently awkward,” because court collections are predominantly how his office is funded, he said.
“The more successful we are in court to reduce our clients’ fines and fees, the less money there is for our office budget,” Brewster said.
Unlike the public defender offices, the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System and the District Attorneys Council stand as their own state entities.
OIDS represents indigent defendants in all counties except Tulsa and Oklahoma. The agency’s budget is only about 8% court collections, with the rest coming from legislative appropriations, according to Craig Sutter, its executive director.
Prosecutors must generate about 55 percent of their own budgets, according to the District Attorneys Council annual budget and performance review documents.
Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler said that model, for the government to fund its core functions on the backs of defendants, is unsustainable, counter to common sense and immoral.
Kunzweiler said he knows there could be a perception that his office may prosecute a case in an effort just to make money; but neither he nor any of his assistant district attorneys ever prosecute a case that can’t be proven, he said.
“I would prefer to run my office without having to be dependent on collections,” Kunzweiler said.
Statewide district court collections
|Judicial Branch fees||Executive Branch fees||Total collections|
Source: State of Oklahoma
Editor's note: After publication, a law institute was added to the list of those alleging the court debt collection system in Oklahoma is an unconstitutional “extortionate scheme.”
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