When Linda Bearden did not pay $451 of court costs stemming from a 2011 guilty plea, a Tulsa County judge issued a bench warrant for her arrest.
Months later, on Oct. 15, a sheriff's deputy noticed a blue Mitsubishi with a cracked windshield driving on 36th Street North near the Gilcrease Expressway. The deputy stopped the car and found Bearden driving under a suspended license with an outstanding warrant for failure to pay court costs, so he arrested her.
After a few days, a judge ordered her released from Tulsa Jail after working out a payment agreement for both cases. But she remained in the jail for nearly two weeks, sitting on a hold for Creek County, where she owes more than $1,200 in traffic tickets. She was transferred to Creek County's jail on Monday, where she will likely remain in custody until a Nov. 4 court hearing.
"I'm not a bad person," Bearden said during an interview at the Tulsa Jail. "I just have no money."
The percent of Tulsa Jail bookings involving warrants issued for inmates' failures to pay court fines and fees has more than tripled during the past decade, a Tulsa World analysis shows.
The World examined jail booking data from the month of July for 2004 through 2013. The analysis excluded arrests on felony charges or for federal authorities.
Of the roughly 1,700 inmate bookings during July 2004, 8 percent were solely or in part the result of warrants for failure to pay costs. During July 2013, the portion of bookings involving failure to pay increased to 29 percent of the roughly 1,200 times inmates were taken into custody.
The most recent percentage is the highest since July 2008, when 26 percent of the around 1,300 jail bookings involved failure to pay warrants.
The problem of overcrowding at the Tulsa Jail has grown worse in recent years, Tulsa County Undersheriff Tim Albin said. He points to the volume of inmates booked on outstanding warrants, such as those issued for failure to pay fines and fees, as one of several factors driving the increased inmate populations.
Historically, the inmate population would rise during the summer but go back down in the fall.
"What happened a couple of years ago, is it climbed up in the summer months and kept climbing," Albin said.
The average daily inmate population was more than 1,800 during September, he said. The jail is considered full at 1,650. The population was 1,767 on Friday.
These statistics are something Albin knows all too well about the overcrowded jail he manages. Often, inmates end up booked in at the taxpayers' expense simply because they got behind on payments for court costs and can't afford to get out, he said.
Though several county and municipal court officials interviewed by the World for this story insisted that neither is running a "debtor's jail" system, data show that a growing number of inmates end up in jail for failure to pay and the problem becomes compounded by the expense of returning to jail.
Albin estimates that on most days, the combination of bookings on warrants for failure to appear and failure to pay costs keeps the jail two-thirds full.
"The cheapest traffic ticket we write is $160," he said. "People are struggling. There's not a lot of income. And that has a cascading effect."
Both Tulsa municipal and county court officials said local judges are quick to work out payment plans for inmates so they can get out of jail and back to work or taking care of their children or families
"But sometimes, (the inmates) just don't follow through," Albin said. "Those warrants get issued and the amount they owe keeps going up."
And both district and municipal court fees have risen steadily over the past decade as well. Many municipal court fees have increased by 30 percent or more since 2003, outpacing both inflation rates and average household income growth for the area, the World's analysis shows.
Bob Garner, chief prosecutor for the city of Tulsa, said it's common for the city to examine court fine and fee increases every four years or so. The last increase took effect in 2009, but the police officers he's spoken to say Tulsa's costs are high enough at the moment.
Judges typically work with people who show up to their court date and explain financial hardships, he said. For those out of work, judges can convert portions of the fines to work days.
The economy may be a factor in recent years, but many of the people being arrested "are not people who manage money well anyway," he said.
"Is it any worse than it's ever been?" he asked. "We just don't have debtors' prisons."
The real expense
A 2010 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, "In for a Penny," contended that nationwide, debtors' prisons are still a reality, with poor defendants being jailed at high rates for failing to handle legal debts they typically face uphill battles to pay.
The report alleged that in the face of mounting budget deficits, states aggressively pursued the court debts of people without regard to their ability to pay, to fund the criminal justice system "on the backs of the poor."
Linda Bearden happens to have a surname in common with an inmate from a monumental U.S. Supreme Court decision, Bearden v. Georgia. In that 1983 case, the Court ruled that people cannot be imprisoned for failure to pay a criminal fine unless that failure to pay was "willful."
The Court held that sentencing courts must inquire into a defendant's reasons for failing to pay a fine or restitution before sentencing him to serve time in prison. To imprison someone merely because of his poverty would be fundamentally unfair, the court said.
Linda Bearden's financial troubles began about a decade ago. Her husband and son died within a few years of each other, and soon after, she lost both her house and car, she said.
Court records show she picked up a few pricey traffic tickets in Creek County, debts she still has not finished paying. Then, in 2011, she was arrested for shoplifting from a Walmart.
She pleaded guilty and got a suspended sentence for 30 days in the Tulsa Jail, plus a $150 fine. Standard court costs and fees for her case drove the amount owed to more than $520.
Court officials worked out an agreement for Bearden to pay $50 per month until the debt was paid in full, and a judge would review her case in six months.
Court records show Bearden paid the first $150 owed according to the agreement. But by December 2012, she began to have trouble making payments again. A bench warrant was issued for her failure to pay $451. That bench warrant alone added $50 to her court debt.
Based on state DOC average costs to house female offenders per day and amounts other law enforcement agencies reimburse the jail for housing inmates, the World estimates that it likely cost taxpayers about $50 per day to keep Bearden in jail. By that estimate, her two weeks cost taxpayers nearly $700 about $250 more than she owed the court.
That doesn't include the expense of Creek County jailing her beginning Oct. 28.
And now, with the misdemeanor charges filed against her for her Oct. 15 arrest, court fines and fees have added another $543 to her Tulsa County debts, records show.
Before getting locked up, Bearden was working in home health care and nursing. She wants to get out, to keep working if she doesn't lose her job.
"But they keep locking me up," she said. "How many times do you just have to keep coming back because you have no money?"
The worst thing a person who owes court costs can do is not show up to court.
Missing a court date means a bench warrant for his or her arrest will be issued and that means an eventual trip back to jail, with even more fines and fees.
"Whether they owe $300 or $30,000, the only reason they ended up in jail is because they did not show up and ask for more time to pay," said Tulsa County Special Judge William Hiddle. He now handles misdemeanors and used to preside over the cost docket, where those who can't afford to pay come to ask the court for a break.
Tulsa County Special Judge Anthony Miller now presides over the cost docket on Thursdays, where over and over he tells those seeking help that he will try to work with them, provided they hold up their end of the deal.
A male defendant, a metal fabricator, appeared this week to tell Miller he was having trouble finding a job.
"Tell me the name of every place you applied in the past 90 days," Miller responded.
"I just got out of jail a few days ago," the defendant replied.
Miller advised that the man may need to expand his search or skill set. Would he consider working community service hours to earn $8 per hour credit toward his court debts?
They worked out a plan for community service hours that could substantially reduce his court debt. Among the defendants appearing this week, some struggled to earn income while caring for disabled kids and large families. Some owed only $400, one owed more than $17,000 for unpaid costs dating back to cases from the 1990s.
One woman explained she had to choose between having her electricity cut off and paying her court costs.
The court has remedies, much like the electric company, Miller explained. If you don't pay, the court's version of cutting off power is sending people to jail.
"Nobody wins, I promise you that," he said.
Fines, penalties and filing fees
OVER TIME: COMMON TULSA MUNICIPAL FINES/PENALTIES
|Invalid driver’s license (suspended, revoked or canceled)||$115||$150|
|Speeding 11-15 miles per hour over limit||$125||$175|
|Running a red light||$160||$200|
OVER TIME: COMMON COURT FILING FEES
|Offense||June 2004||Nov. 2005||Current|
|Misdemeanor, per conviction/defendant||$94||$94||$94|
|Misdemeanor DUI, per conviction/defendant||$393||$393||$443|
|Service by sheriff (criminal case) within county||$30||$50||$50|
Reimbursements to Tulsa Jail
Oklahoma Department of Corrections: $27*
U.S. Marshals Service: $59*
Immigration and Customs Enforcement: $53*
City of Tulsa: Set rate of about $400,000 per year
*Amount per day, per inmate the county receives to offset costs of jailing prisoners waiting to be transferred to custody of state or federal law enforcement agencies.
Casey Smith 918-732-8106
Cary Aspinwall 918-581-8477