OK Legislators to Discuss Reform of Court Fines, Fees

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An Oklahoma judge waived $44,000 in fines, fees and court costs for Delaine Wilson, 49, after 15 years of payments that wouldn’t have achieved a zero balance until she reached age 195. Amid fear of re-incarceration, Wilson paid $6,100 despite minimum-wage work, three children, health problems and eventual guardianship of two grandkids. State legislators will discuss a broken justice system overly reliant on collections from poverty-stricken people, the Tulsa World reports. A Tulsa County group advocating reform believes treating court debt as a civil rather than criminal matter would do more than anything else to prevent Oklahoma from being a debtors’ prison system. “You aren’t going to go to jail for a civil judgment,” said James Hinds, a Tulsa defense attorney and member of the working group. “It’s simply the only surefire way to keep people from going to jail simply because they aren’t coming up with the money.”

Court costs were the fourth most common reason for admission to the Tulsa County jail in 2016, with five days being the average length of stay, says a Vera Institute of Justice study. There were 1,163 admissions for court costs and, on any given day,  16 inmates were held for that reason. There was a 57 percent drop in arrests on only failure-to-pay warrants from 2016 (1,079) through 2018 (465). The county judiciary in September launched a seven-day-a-week bond docket to provide individualized bail hearings within 24 hours for most arrestees. The protocol is to release people held on a failure-to-pay warrant on their own recognizance with a summons date to address the debt. The new protocol prevents defendants from sitting in jail for days simply because they are unable to afford bail. The collection issue can be boiled down to this: The number and amount of court costs and fees have skyrocketed; and the collection method disproportionately incarcerates poor people.

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