State lawmakers seemed poised to overhaul Oklahoma’s system of court fines and fees, but efforts to remove fines and fees written into state law failed this legislative session.
Senate Bill 1458, a large-scale reform that would have eliminated around $34 million collected annually through fines and fees from state law, was completely gutted during budget negotiations after lawmakers couldn’t come to an agreement on what to include in the bill.
“Things get caught up in politics, especially in an election year,” said bill author Sen. Roger Thompson, chair of the Senate Appropriation Committee. “But we have created in Oklahoma such a burden on the backs of people that some of them will never get out of it… In my opinion, we must address this.”
House Bill 3196 also attempted to remove more than $9 million in annual revenue collected through fines and fees from state law but failed in the last few weeks of session.
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Oklahoma for years has relied on fines and fees paid by those involved in the criminal justice system to fill budget gaps for state agencies and the district courts. Critics say fines and fees are an unreliable source of funding that unfairly burden the poor. About 80% of criminal defendants are indigent, and the collection rate on court debt is only 25%, according to information presented at a state interim study last year.
Dozens of state agencies receive some funding from court fees. Close to 20% of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation’s budget and nearly 70% of the budget for the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training are made up through fees, according to information provided from Thompson’s office earlier this year. In fiscal year 2020, over $13 million in fees went to sheriff’s offices, and $1.2 million went to pay for Court Appointed Special Advocates.
The Department of Wildlife Conservation, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and the Department of Human Services all also receive tens of thousands of dollars a year in fees.
Senate Bill 1532, which also failed, would have required judges to waive all outstanding fines, fees and court costs for people who make timely payments for 48 out of 60 months.
Author Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville, said the bill could have incentivized people to pay their fines and fees and helped courts collect a bit more money while also providing a clear end-date for payments. But court officials were still worried they would lose out on millions of dollars. Daniels said there wasn’t enough data to assuage those fears.
“I think this is doable, but it’s much more difficult than I thought it would be,” Daniels said.
Lawmakers did appLawmakers did approve two other bills addressing fines and fees this session, including House Bill 3205, which removes most fees for juvenile offenders from statute.
Rachel Holt, director of the Office of Juvenile Affairs, told the Stillwater News Press that the department on average has only collected around $14,000 per year in total payments from hundreds of youth over the last five years.
“OJA supported this legislation because we know that the families that we serve are overwhelmingly indigent, and we do not want the payment of fees to be a barrier,” Holt told the publication.
Lawmakers also approved House Bill 3925, creating the 13-member Cost Administration Implementation Committee to oversee a new statewide framework for collecting fines and fees, as well as to make recommendations to the Legislature on fines and fees issues going forward.
The bill also requires courts to notify a person of how much they owe the court at the time of sentencing and to create a payment plan or set a date for a hearing to determine ability to pay. The court can reduce or waive costs, or allow community service work if a person cannot pay the full amount. HB 3925 passed with bipartisan support and was signed by the governor.
Although the Legislature did not eliminate fines and fees in state law this year, it did increase appropriations to some agencies that receive money from fees, including about $8 million in additional funding for district courts. Lawmakers also nearly doubled the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training’s budget from $3.6 million last fiscal year to $7.3 million.
Thompson said these increases mean the Legislature is relying more heavily on state revenues to fund these agencies rather than fines and fees, which could help next year as lawmakers try again to push reforms.
“I am very committed to this,” Thompson said. “You’ll see the same language next year.”
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