OKLAHOMA CITY — State lawmakers are funding some executive branch functions on the backs of Oklahoma’s criminal defendants by allowing judges to tack on additional fees, criminal justice advocates told lawmakers this week.
In budget year 2020 alone, total fee collections for executive agencies reached $49.4 million as judges required defendants to pay fees for things such as tourism programs, police officer training, new school bus cameras, littering rewards and wildlife support efforts, according to an analysis presented to lawmakers during a hearing at the state Capitol.
Jari Askins, Oklahoma administrative director of the courts, said legislators have historically considered the so-called “user fees” as the price defendants must pay when they enter the court system.
But Askins and other criminal justice advocates have urged lawmakers to begin overhauling the fee structure. They say lawmakers should use state appropriations to properly fund the state’s district court system and executive branches instead of trying to fund government with fees levied on defendants.
The legislative strategy, which has been in place for almost 30 years, has led to increased risks of recidivism and non-compliance, inconsistent and unreliable funding for the state’s district court system and the misuse of court, district attorney and defense resources, said Tim Laughlin, executive director of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, which primarily serves indigent juvenile and adults living in 75 counties.
“It’s going to take a while to unravel this ball of yarn,” Laughlin said.
He said it’s going to take a multi-year legislative effort to address fines and costs, and to empower judges to make informed decisions on assessing fees and establishing payment plans before Oklahoma can get back to the point where it has a more balanced mechanism for funding its court system as well as its executive agencies.
Damion Shade, criminal justice policy analyst with the Oklahoma Policy Institute, said the state has relied on a fee-for-service model to fund law enforcement entities, victim resources, trauma treatment care, mental health resources, crime reduction resources and just to keep the lights on in the courtrooms.
He said judges, prosecutors and court staff are now dependent on increasing user fees for their survival.
For example, Shade said the cost of a ticket for speeding 20 mph over the limit has risen nearly 150% since 1992, from $107 to $265.25, due to new fees.
Oklahomans are struggling to pay the increasing court fees, Shade said.
From 2018 to 2020, more than 40,000 failure-to-pay warrants were issued in Tulsa and Oklahoma counties alone, Shade said. More than $630 million in court debt remains outstanding from 2012-2018, he said.
“Think about what that means for the courts,” he said. “That’s $630 million that we meant to keep the lights on for those 77 court clerks across the state.”
Courts, meanwhile, are forcing police to act as their collection agency by re-arresting the poor. That diverts police resources that are supposed to keep serious crime at bay, he said.
State Rep. Danny Williams, R-Seminole, said the fines, fees and funding structure needs to be addressed. He first became interested in the issue through a church program, which has recovering addicts. The class has had lengthy discussions about the issue.
He said the hearing at the Capitol highlighted how inefficient the fines and fees system is in Oklahoma.
“Our public servants are burdened with the impossible task of trying to collect money that we will never see, and it’s on taxpayers’ own dime,” he said. “It’s time to consider potential avenues for a new approach that saves time and taxpayer dollars while ensuring people who commit crimes are fairly punished.”
State Rep. Bob Ed Culver, R-Tahlequah, said under the existing system, lawmakers run the risk of perpetuating the problem they’re trying to solve.
“The goal for any person who gets in trouble with law enforcement should be to rehabilitate them into productive members of society,” he said. “If they are constantly indebted to the court system, that makes it much harder to move on with their lives. It’s important that we in the Legislature work with experts to determine if state-appropriated dollars can help fix some of the issues we are seeing.”