Prisoners of Debt


This is an abridged version of a story originally published on January 31 by Oklahoma Watch, a nonprofit journalism website, and reproduced here courtesy of the Investigative News Network, to which The Crime Report belongs. For the full version, and related stories, please click HERE.

Darlene Lorenz was released from prison seven years ago.

The Tulsa woman had spent a decade in the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud, Oklahoma on various drug and firearms charges. Her conviction capped several years of run-ins with the law. Lorenz said she was arrested more than 80 times.

“It was crazy,” Lorenz said. “I was the world's worst drug dealer.”

Lorenz got out of prison early. Although she was sentenced to more than 270 years behind bars—amounting to a life sentence—in 2006 then-Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry approved a Pardon and Parole Board recommendation to commute her sentence.

She left Mabel Bassett to begin a new life.

Today, at 65, Lorenz still feels like a captive. She owes $91,000 in court-imposed fines and other fees related to her case. Another life sentence.

Lorenz is among the thousands of Oklahomans convicted of non-violent crimes, especially drug-related offenses, who face fines and fees that are difficult, if not impossible, to pay off after prison. The fines can range from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars. The fees—for things like fingerprinting, a trauma-care fund and applying for a public defender—can tack on hundreds or thousands more.

The charges continue after inmates begin serving time in prison or jail. They pay fees for making phone calls and their families pay fees for transferring money into inmate accounts. After offenders are released, they may pay monthly probation fees and steep costs for getting a driver's license restored.

Former inmates, attorneys and some lawmakers say the combined costs are making even steeper the barriers for ex-offenders to build a stable life after prison. They often struggle to find jobs, and if they get one, their wages can be garnished to pay fines and fees. If they don't pay, they can be returned to prison.

Court and state records show the fees and fines don't just fund the criminal justice system, but also go toward funding mental health programs, uncompensated care in hospitals, schools, and roads and bridges.


“It's mind-boggling,” former state Rep. Joe Eddins, D-Vinita said, referring to the number of fines and fees.

Eddins worked on prisoner fee issues when he served in the Legislature. “It's a miracle that they (ex-offenders) do what they have to do and go straight, when you look at it.”

Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Douglas Combs said in an interview with Oklahoma Watch that there is a need to require offenders to pay fines and fees – an actual “debt to society” — because of their crimes.

“There should be consequences,” he said. “There should be a penalty for the result of their actions, which violate society.”

State Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Norman, who has pushed for sentencing reforms, also said he supports financial penalties for offenders on top of incarceration, but the fines should be reasonable.

“I think the offender needs to make the effort to pay something, but there has to be a happy medium,” he said.

Arrest Triggers Fees

For those who enter the criminal justice system, potential debt begins building quickly.

In most counties, when a suspect is arrested and kept in jail before the case is resolved, the person is assessed a “per diem” charge—a kind of daily rent—during that period; the charges kick in if the person is convicted or given a deferred sentence. The cost varies by county, but can be more than $50 a day. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections doesn't impose such fees.

Counties won the right to assess such charges under a law approved in 1999. A $3,000 cap was set in 2004, then removed in 2005. The per-diem fees have mired many inmates in thousands of dollars of debt, especially if they were jailed in more than one county.

James Wood, of Oklahoma City, was arrested in McIntosh County in 2010 and charged with drug trafficking and intent to manufacture methamphetamine. He lived in Little Rock, Ark., at the time, so no bail bonds firm would agree to post his $100,000 bond. He couldn't afford a lawyer. While awaiting trial, he sat in jail for 10 months. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 11 years in prison plus fines and court costs.

Wood was released in December and is staying at Exodus House, a nonprofit that helps ex-offenders re-enter society. He owes $14,169 in fines and fees, including $12,848 to McIntosh County Jail, which charged about $40 a day.

“I asked them in the end, 'You guys are giving me this time. The fines are one thing, but will you work with me on these incarceration costs?' They refused,” Wood said. “I can't afford a lawyer, but I can afford this? It doesn't make sense.”

Upon arrest, defendants also begin accumulating court fees, which take effect on conviction.

Depending on the case, suspects can incur fees for lab analysis ($165), mental health if the crime involves drugs ($150), fingerprinting ($5), the law library ($6), the filing of bonds ($35), jail booking ($25), and payments to revolving funds for drug education ($155) and medical liability ($11). Convicted persons also must pay court filing fees tied to specific charges, such as $443 for a felony count of driving under the influence.

The fees are not always high, but can pile up. Since 1992, when voters approved a state question limiting the Legislature's ability to raise taxes, the number of criminal justice fees has risen from 23 to 63, court-fee schedules show.

In Prison, With Fines

Despite the dozens of fees, it is the fines that most often sink non-violent offenders in tens of thousands of dollars of debt.

Those fines are especially high in drug-related cases.

A conviction for sale or distribution of 25 to 1,000 pounds of hashish or concentrates comes with a maximum $100,000 fine. A third misdemeanor conviction of possessing marijuana paraphernalia brings a maximum one year in prison and $10,100 fine.

Oklahoma County District Court Special Judge Donald Easter, who presides over the court's cost docket, said most large fines associated with crimes like drug trafficking are unlikely to be paid in full because most offenders can't afford it. Such fines can run $10,000 to more than $30,000 per count.

“We're not Miami. They don't drive cigar boats around here,” Easter said. “Very rarely are you going to collect that 30-grand.”

If the court were to demand payment of such fines in full, a higher court would likely overturn it, Easter said.

In prison, an inmate's ability to pay off fines and fees is hampered by additional fees and costs, records show.

Offenders must pay charges of as much as $20 to make a telephone call home. Their families pay per-transaction fees — $6 to $9 in state prisons — to deposit funds in an inmate's account. In the meantime, offenders are paid relatively little for jobs they perform in prisons.

Lorenz said she earned 65 cents an hour as a darkroom technician for Oklahoma Correctional Industries, which uses prison labor to produce items ranging from furniture to smokers.

This is an abridged version of a story originally published on January 31 by Oklahoma Watch, a nonprofit journalism website, and reproduced here courtesy of the Investigative News Network, to which The Crime Report belongs. For the full version, and related stories, please click HERE. Readers' comments welcome.

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