Criminal justice reform advocates argue that increased application of court fines and fees has led to a two-tiered justice system — one where those who can afford to pay go free while those who can’t afford to pay often get stuck in a cycle of increasing debt as they struggle to pay down what can amount to tens of thousands of dollars of legal debts. how this system has grown in Oklahoma because of a greater reliance on court fines and fees to pay for various government agencies. In May, the Tulsa World examined Since August, the Tulsa World has investigated this issue. Below is our multi-part series as we look at the people who are affected by this system and the toll it takes on them as they try to get their lives back on track.
Day 2: Outstanding court debt blocks many Oklahomans from getting convictions expunged
Buck West served three years in prison for drug possession. “You give them years out of your life,” Buck said. “Is that not enough? No, apparently it’s not.” When he left prison in 2014, officials handed him a bill for $6,795.50. After release, inmates often accept court fees and fines as a lifelong debt, a burden to be coped with but never overcome
Day 1: How one woman's story depicts Oklahoma’s struggle with fines, fees and costs in the justice system
In tears, Delaine Wilson walked out of the courtroom. The judge told her to stop crying, but the 49-year-old wept her entire drive home. Perhaps a tear fell for every dollar of the $44,000 in fines, fees and court costs that were waived in a singular action after 15 years of marginal — but onerous — payments that wouldn’t have achieved a zero balance until Wilson reached age 195. Amidst fear of re-incarceration, Wilson paid $6,100 despite minimum-wage work, three children, health problems and eventual guardianship of two grandkids. She attained two associate’s degrees at a community college but struggled to secure more lucrative opportunities because her felony conviction couldn’t be expunged until her debt was satisfied.
Day 1: Young mother, now out of jail and sober, is trying to rebuild her life but still has jail fees to worry about
Feeling anxiety and stress about her monthly visits for post-release supervision, Stormy Poe would remove her treasured rings for safe-keeping — gifts from her deceased grandmother. The young mother feared an unintentional probation violation, not knowing much about paying fines, fees and court costs. If unexpectedly taken to jail, she didn’t want those heirlooms to potentially be lost in the shuffle. “I just remember being terrified every time to go in to see my probation officer, because you never know if you have a warrant for some weird thing you didn’t pay,” Poe said.
Day 3: Reform advocates want Oklahoma to halt driver's license suspension as an incentive to pay tickets, court debt
"In most cases, we are prosecuting the poorest and most desperate among us. ... 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.”
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.
Day 4: Unpaid court fees disproportionately impacts north Tulsa leaving residents 'entrapped' in debt, analysis shows
Since launching a series of Expungement Expos aimed at helping those with criminal records to wipe them clean, Vanessa Hall-Harper has noticed one trait that links most of the attendees. Hall-Harper, a Tulsa city councilor representing District 1 in north Tulsa, said the “vast majority” of those seeking help still owed court fines and fees. Those who still owed are told they must pay off any court debt before they can begin the formal process of expunging their criminal records, she said. But for some that can be a tall order.
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Day 4: He was homeless and struggled with alcohol. Then Ali Sharifi piled up over 300 arrests before dying owing thousands in court debt
Ali Sharifi owed the state thousands of dollars in unpaid fines and fees when he died in November 2017. While most of Sharifi’s charges were in Tulsa Municipal Court, prosecutors charged him at least a dozen times in state court with public intoxication and other misdemeanor charges during the last years of his life. It was there that the court fines and fees quickly began to add up for Sharifi, with no hope of him ever paying it all off.
Day 5: Tulsa County seen as model for solutions as criticisms of Oklahoma bail system compound
As criticisms of cash bail mount across the country, some Oklahoma court systems are devising creative solutions to ensure inmates eligible for release aren't wasting away awaiting a court date. Thanks to a donated iPad, Washington County Associate District Judge Russell Vaclaw said he can perform weekend hearings with ease via Facetime, guaranteeing inmates booked after the work week see a judge in less than 48 hours. “I’ve done it in my pajamas on occasion," he told the House Judicial Committee. "Makes it very easy." The system was one of many examples shared with legislators in search of a statewide solution during a House interim study to show how courts are individually working to address cash bail systems critics say criminalize poverty.
Day 5: Legislature looking at ways to alleviate burden of court fines and fees
In October, Oklahoma State Sen. Julie Daniels led an interim study in hopes of finding out more information about the financial needs of government agencies involved in operating the criminal legal system, as well as of those ordered to pay court costs. Though Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bipartisan bill this year making State Question 780 retroactive, Daniels said she wanted to make sure it and other well-intended reform measures do not create unintended consequences that could leave the court system without adequate resources to do its job.
A look back: How much does Oklahoma rely on court collections to fund government? 'We reach a point where we begin to criminalize poverty.'
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.
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