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.
Since 2008, records show Tulsa County state courts have levied $209.3 million in fines and court costs on individuals for traffic, misdemeanor and felony cases, according to data supplied to the Tulsa World by Open Justice Oklahoma, a program of the Oklahoma Policy Institute.
And despite Tulsa County District Court for years employing a private firm to collect outstanding court debt, just a fraction of the amount owed has been paid, records show.
As of mid-2019, some $157.8 million, or three-fourths, of the original amount levied by judges since 2008 in Tulsa County is still owed, much of it by people living in disadvantaged areas of the city, according to the data.
The top five Tulsa County ZIP codes ranked by amount owed the courts are all located in north Tulsa, according to a World analysis of the data gathered by Open Justice Oklahoma.
In all, persons living in eight ZIP codes that make up north Tulsa and the area around the Tulsa County jail accounted for one in three dollars owed to Tulsa County District Court.
By comparison, the population of the same eight ZIP codes accounts for about one-eighth of the total population in all ZIP codes that owed the district court, according to a World analysis of the ZIP code data.
The problem is particularly acute in one north Tulsa ZIP code.
Residents in the 74106 ZIP code still owe about 88% of the amount levied by the state courts from 2008 to present. That equates to a combined $12.6 million in unpaid court fines and fees from 2008 to present, or about $1,000 for every adult living in the ZIP code.
Residents living in ZIP codes that owe the most in court fines and fees are also some of the poorest in the county.
For instance, two in five residents living in the 74106 ZIP code reported living below the poverty line, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures.
The 74106 ZIP code is roughly bounded by the Inner dispersal loop on the south side, East 46th Street North on the north side, the Tulsa-Osage county line on the west side and Utica Avenue on the east side.
Hall-Harper, whose district includes the 74106 ZIP code, said the amount owed is representative of a broken criminal justice system, starting with, she said, the laws and police who enforce them.
For instance, Hall-Harper said she believes the high amounts owed in the 74106 ZIP code and others in north Tulsa is reflective of overpolicing areas with “black, brown and poor communities.”
“And so when you overpolice an area, you are going to have more arrests, more contact with law enforcement that potentially results in arrest, which ultimately culminates in court costs, fines and fees,” Hall-Harper said.
Many saddled with high court costs and fines must decide whether to pay, eat or pay other bills, she said.
Hall-Harper said she plans on hosting another Expungement Expo in the near future, although a date has not been set.
She said more attorneys are needed who are willing to volunteer their time for expo participants.
“It puts people in a place of hopelessness and a place where they can never see the light at the end of the tunnel and so they don’t even try,” Hall-Harper said. “People are just trying to survive.”
Cameron Pipe of the nonprofit organization Bail Project sees the problem firsthand in his work every day.
The organization’s clients, he said, are often “people whose poverty has driven them into the criminal legal system in the first place, only then to have cash bail, fines and fees further compound their circumstances.”
Already facing such daily questions as “Do I have food to eat? Do my children have food? Do I have a roof over my head?” many poor Tulsans find themselves burdened with ever-increasing court debt, causing them to “become further entrapped.”
Added Pipe, “They have to decide ‘do I pay my court debt and not feed my children, or feed my children and play the gambling game? Do I take the chance of a warrant being issued?”
Under the current system, Pipe said, someone could be convicted for shoplifting — say for $10 worth of food — and have that single event turn over time into thousands of dollars in fines and fees.
“Just like cash bail, the imposition of fines and fees on those who can least afford it, props up a two-tier system where those who can pay move on, while the poor remain trapped in crushing cycles of debt and incarceration,” he said.
Bail Project CEO Robin Steinberg said it’s common in Oklahoma, like it is nationally, for relatively minor criminal cases to ensnare individuals in the system for years, even decades.
The court-debt disparity between different ZIP codes in Tulsa County mirrors a national trend that is “unfair and completely unjust,” she added — the “targeting” of those low-income communities by law enforcement.
That targeting has helped create “a web of punishment that extends far beyond the initial case and makes it nearly impossible for our clients to ever get out of the criminal legal system,” Steinberg said.
“This is no way to run a justice system. It’s immoral and counterproductive. … It’s something we need to grapple with as a nation.”