The Rogers County Courthouse. SHANE BEVEL/For The Frontier

For years, a northeastern Oklahoma district attorney’s office has operated a program that requires low-level offenders to pay a monthly fee in order to participate in court-ordered community service, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for the prosecutor’s office and providing labor assistance to local nonprofit and government agencies.

However, the program may lack the legal underpinnings that would allow it to be operated by a district attorney’s office and appears to be the only community service program in the state operated by a district attorney’s office, an investigation by The Frontier has found.

The Rogers County Community Service Program is operated by District 12 District Attorney Matt Ballard’s office, which covers Rogers, Mayes and Craig counties. Offenders sentenced to community service in the program must pay a monthly $35 fee, in addition to other costs and fees ordered by the court or terms of probation.

Between January 2016 and Sept. 6, the Rogers County Community Service Program alone collected $421,217 in fees from those serving their community service sentence and the Craig County program collected $24,225 in fees. Since the district attorney’s office took over the Mayes County program in September 2017, it has collected $41,440, according to Ballard’s office.

A state law passed in 2012 allows county commissioners to establish a county community service program for low-level offenders and to charge participants a $25 to $250 fee to pay for staff to oversee the program. But no similar statute exists for district attorneys’ offices.

Ballard said a district attorney’s office is able to operate community service programs through interlocal agreements with the counties, and his office entered into one of those agreements to take over the Mayes County Community Service Program last autumn. Prior to that, the program was run by the county, which Ballard said had been losing money on it.

“To us it made sense because the county does a lot of great things, but it’s not in their wheelhouse to run a community service program,” Ballard said.

However, Ballard said his office was unable to find any existing agreement with Rogers County or Craig County that would authorize his office to run the program there, though it has already been doing so for years and collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees from thousands of participants.

Ballard gave The Frontier a personnel transfer form from 2005 signed by former District Attorney Gene Haynes transferring a county employee who oversaw the community service program to the DA’s office with a note stating that the DA’s office was taking over the program. But no actual agreement between the two entities could be found, he said.

“There may have been one. We were told that there was one at the time, but I know when I took office there were files deleted (by the outgoing DA),” Ballard said.

Shortly after The Frontier began inquiring about the legal authority for Ballard’s office to operate a community service program late last week, an item would authorize the county to enter into an agreement with the DA’s office to operate a community service program was placed on the Rogers Board of County Commissioners agenda for its upcoming meeting.

That meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday at the Rogers County Courthouse.

“We wanted to explain to them what we were doing and clarify,” Ballard said. “It’s possible that it (an interlocal agreement with Rogers County) exists out there, we just haven’t located it yet. Either way, I want to do it the right way.”

Most of the people who are sentenced to the community service program and low-level or non-violent felony offenders who received community service as part of negotiated plea agreements with the district attorney’s office. The program charges a monthly fee of $35, but virtually all of those in the community service program are also on district attorney probation as well, meaning they must also pay the DA’s office a $40 monthly fee, in addition to other court costs, fees and fines.

Earlier this summer, The Frontier reported that Ballard’s office was also going after people in Rogers who failed to return movie rentals, an effort estimated to earn the district attorney’s office more than $100,000.

Charging individuals a fee in order to work off their debt to society has some defense attorneys frustrated. They say that a community service fee is just the latest effort by a cash-strapped criminal justice system — which has faced years of appropriation cuts by the Legislature — to squeeze money out of those who can least afford it, thereby increasing jail incarcerations when someone misses a payment and making it even more difficult for them to get out from under the debt and move on with their lives.

“My idea of community service is a mechanism where defendants who could not afford programming or other fines, fees or costs,” said Bob Ravitz, chief public defender in Oklahoma County. “In lieu of those fines fees or costs, community service would be used as a punitive measure, which I think is totally appropriate. I think what has happened is everybody wants to get money from entities who can’t afford it and as a result we’ve created these unconscionable debts on individuals who can’t even pay them.”

Pryor attorney Misty Fields, who has worked as a public defender in scores of criminal cases in Mayes County, said she share’s Ravitz’s fear that community service programs are being eyed as just another revenue-generating program for prosecutors. Fields is also running for a district judge spot in the 12th Judicial District.

“I think it’s about the money,” Fields said. “I think that others will follow. I think the particulars of the situation probably have not been discussed at a DAC conference yet, which typically when one does something successfully, the rest will follow. So I think it’s coming.”

When the Mayes County Community Service program was transferred from the county to the district attorney’s office in September 2017, Fields said she began to notice changes with the program. No longer could those sentenced to community service choose where in the community they did their time, she said. Now they are assigned a location to work and community service was much more likely to be a condition of probation in plea deals with the district attorney’s office, she said.

“I do remember at some point where the community service, it started to get more and more… ridiculous I would say,” Fields said. “You have somebody who is maybe in a wheelchair and had a broken back or neck at some point and they’re on disability and it’s an ordeal for them just to drive. To me, that’s a good reason to waive the community service. But they would say, no we’ll send them out to Second Impressions (consignment shop) and they can fold clothes. To me, that’s over the top.”

Mayes County defense attorney Misty Fields. Courtesy/FACEBOOK.

Another issue Fields said she has noticed is that by the time the community service hours must be complete, the alloted time frame for a judge to vacate an offender’s sentence or for an appeal to be filed has long since passed. And that likely means jail time, she said.

“So there literally is no one, unless God Himself shows up, there’s no one who can keep you from doing that 30 days if you haven’t done your community service,” Fields said.

But supporters of the programs in Rogers, Mayes and Craig counties say the fee is necessary to pay for staff to run the program, and without the fee the program, which helps provide support to dozens of nonprofit and government organizations in the three counties, would not survive. And without the program, more people will likely be serving jail time instead, Ballard said.

“Those fees — that’s what we have to do to collect it and have the program,” Ballard said. “If these people aren’t doing community service, if they’re not doing supervision, then they’re going to be incarcerated either in DOC or the county jail. I could look at that like it’s not my problem, but again, I live in this community and they come back. You don’t save money in the long run. I might save money from my little insular office, but ultimately, the entire community ends up bearing that cost.

Since he was first elected to the spot in 2014, Ballard said he has watched as state appropriations went from about 50 percent of his office’s total funding to about a third. Yet, Ballard said, increasing funds is not the primary purpose of his office having the community service program.

“Yes, we need the funding,” he said. “But more than that, we need these people to be productive members of society.”

Matt Ballard, district attorney for Rogers, Mayes and Craig counties.

Ballard said the program in Mayes County was in danger of going away because it was having a difficult time sustaining itself through fees. County commissioners did not want to end it, but faced with budget difficulties were considering it. So his office stepped in and offered to do in Mayes County what it was already doing in Rogers and Craig counties.

“That’s the risk we were running in Mayes county,” Ballard said. “They realized you get money from it but it’s not a money-making proposition. I think it certainly wouldn’t exist in this form (if his office had not stepped in). We wouldn’t be able to leverage it in the same way.”

The fees charged go toward paying the five-person staff of the supervision, restitution and community service office, as well as office expenses, Ballard said. And, along with the supervision program, the community service program in Rogers, Mayes and Craig counties offers advantages other programs in the state do not, and actively seeks to improve the lives of those who go through it.

Ballard said the community service program, which he called “the backbone” of his office’s supervision program, allows participants to earn work hours by attending some life skills workshops, such as the Reboot Rebuild Rogers County program, which can help them find steady work and help improve their lives.

Jennifer Cummings, director of restitution, supervision and community service program for Ballard’s office, said she has watched the program help turn people’s lives around.

“A lot of these things we take for granted … a lot of our defendants have never been taught these things,” Cummings said. “Their parents didn’t teach them to get a job … so a lot of them are learning these job skills.”

Layla Freeman, founder and CEO of Light of Hope in Claremore (which uses labor from the community service program and partners with the DA’s office to set up job, life skills and recovery services for those under the supervision program), said the fees charged by the DA’s office help build a first-class program that not only helps local charities in need, but also helps the offenders break out of negative cycles they may be in.

“I don’t hear any complaint about those fees,” Freeman said. “They know they have to do it. When they’re in recovery and they have the support system we’re building around them, that’s just part of the recovery. If they don’t have a responsibility to pay a certain amount of fees, then they’re not going to learn a new kind of behavior for the new life they have to build.”

However, the program is also unique in other ways. It is one of the few — if not the only — community service programs in the state being operated by a district attorney’s office.

Trent Baggett, executive coordinator for the Oklahoma District Attorney’s Council, said he has never heard of a community service program operated by a district attorney’s office in the state.

“I’m not going to say that it isn’t happening, because I don’t know everything going on in the 77 counties,” Baggett said, “but I can say that I have not heard anybody say anything about doing anything like that at all.”

Baggett also said he knew of no statutory authority allowing a DA’s office to start and operate such a program.

“I know of none,” Baggett said. “At the same time, I don’t know of anything that would prohibit it.”

Another difference between other counties’ community service program and Rogers, Mayes and Craig counties’ is the ability to “buy out” one’s community service hours.

Ravitz said Oklahoma County does not allow those sentenced to community service to make a payment in lieu of working the hours. However, defendants assigned to community service in Rogers, Mayes and Craig counties are allowed to pay the district attorney’s office $10 for each hour of community service required. Usually, community service sentences run between 40 and 120 hours, Cummings said.

“That’s buying justice in my opinion,” Ravitz said. “It’s totally inappropriate.”

Like other community service programs in the state, participants are required to do work for government agencies (such as doing custodial work at a courthouse) or a nonprofit organization.

Tulsa County’s program, which is operated by Tulsa County Court Services and had 2,023 individuals signed up to work in the program last year, does not charge a fee to participants, said Sherri Carrier, director of Court Services. Individuals in that program are allowed to perform work at government agencies or verified nonprofit organizations of their choice, cleaning, mowing, doing clerical work, and a host of other tasks, Carrier said.

In Rogers, Mayes and Craig County, program participants do not get to choose where to work their hours, but are assigned to a work location by the District Attorney’s Office of Supervision, which works with dozens of nonprofit and government agencies to provide them with labor.

One of the nonprofit organizations that use that labor is Second Impressions, a consignment shop with Claremore and Pryor owned by Safenet Services, an organization that provides services to women who have survived domestic abuse or sexual assault.

Ballard’s wife Traci Ballard currently chair’s the organization’s board, according to the organization’s website.

Ballard said the arrangement does not create a conflict of interest. The position is a volunteer one, he said, and his wife took the position to try and do good in the community.

“I don’t think that it is (a conflict),” Ballard said. “That’s something she does. She volunteers to give her time.”

Freeman also said she did not think it created a conflict of interest.

“What her position is doesn’t really have anything to do with the community service part because those are the stores,” Freeman said. “That’s them organizing, sorting an doing physical labor in the store, that has absolutely nothing to do with the business end of Safenet. They’re not even in the same location.”

Pryor attorney Fields, on the other hand, said the arrangement is questionable.

“Even though it’s a nonprofit and charitable and her work with that board is presumably philanthropic, we all have our causes and we’re all usually passionate about our causes,” Fields said. “So if my husband is on the board of a charity and he feels strongly about it, for me to have a vested interest in that charity making money, I think it’s questionable.”

Cummings said she was not even aware Ballard’s wife was on Safenet’s board when the office agreed to send community service workers to its stores.

“We are very strict on any ties. If I go to (a local church) I can’t do my community service there. There’s no if, ands or buts about it,” Cummings said. “We do not let that conflict of interest happen because of those things, people assuming we’re doing something shady. All the staff that works in our office lives in this community, we care about this community. So we take our job very seriously. That’s why we go to the extent that we do and the things that we do. People will fight us on it all day. ‘I’m not that person.’ I don’t care. I’m not letting you prove me wrong. We’re not going that avenue. We have other places we can put you and it’s the same type of community service so there’s no discrepancies.”

Second Impressions in Claremore was the location Rogers State University student Jennifer Tinsley was sent to serve her 240 hours of community service in late 2017.

“The people there were pretty great people,” Tinsley said. “It wasn’t too bad. It was just dealing with the district attorney supervision office that was the horrible part about it.”

In April 2017, Tinsley, 43, had been arrested and charged with public intoxication, resisting arrest and assault and battery on an officer after being arrested by officers at the Rogers State University campus in Claremore.

Tinsley had accepted a plea deal with the Rogers County District Attorney’s office in June 2017 that suspended and deferred her sentencing on the charges and required her to be on DA supervision for two years, pay court fines and costs, be placed under the district attorney supervision program, get a drug and alcohol assessment and do 240 hours of community service.

For the first few months, Tinsley paid her monthly $75 in fees online to the Rogers County District Attorney’s office — $40 for the district attorney probation fee and $35 for the monthly community service fee. By October, she had not yet served her community service hours because she did not have a vehicle at the time, but had until January to do so, she said.

However, it turns out that for at least five months, she had been paying her monthly $75 in fees to the DA’s supervision account, rather than splitting the payments up — $40 to the supervision account and $35 to the separate DA’s community service fund.

On Oct. 1, 2017, prosecutors filed motions requesting that the deferred sentence be accelerated and the suspended sentence be revoked, which could have sent her in prison for up to five years. The reason, prosecutors said, was that she had not yet served any of her hours and though she was overpaying on her monthly DA supervision fee, she had not made a payment to the DA’s community service fund. She was arrested on a bench warrant a few days later and had to again post bond.

“I had been paying it on time after I got a job,” Tinsley said. “All they said was $45 and $35, this has to be paid at the first of every month. I was paying it online like they told me to and it wasn’t until maybe the fourth payment that they told me ‘you’ve been overpaying on one account and you haven’t paid a single dime on the second account.’ I didn’t know there were two accounts I had to pay.”

Tinsley’s lawyer, Tulsa attorney Jeff Krigel, said his client was trying to do the right thing, but that the system appears set up to intentionally make things confusing to clients, increasing the risk they will land back in jail and the amount of legal obligations defendants face.

Krigel, who has had several clients in Rogers County who have been sentenced to community service and had a difficult time navigating the system, said prior to working with clients in Rogers County, he had not heard of a community service program requiring people to pay a fee.

Tulsa criminal defense attorney Jeff Krigel. Courtesy/JEFF KRIGEL LAW FIRM.

The program appears to be set up as a source of funds for the district attorney’s office and free labor, rather than something to help individuals take care of their legal obligations, Krigel said.

“I fear what we’re looking at is something that’s supposed to help people, and instead here it’s designed to help Matt Ballard,” Krigel said. “I think Matt Ballard owes all those people their money back.”

Ballard, however, stands by the program. Without it, he said, the community would be much poorer in many ways.

“I’m as proud of this as anything this office does. I came to this office with a service element. I believe in service to the community,” Ballard said. “We do a great job on prosecutions and sending dangerous people to prison, but I am just as proud of the people we keep out of prison.”

Freeman said the community service program in Rogers County has been “invaluable” and has helped not only charities and government organizations in need of an extra hand, but the individuals who go through it and the community as a whole.

“If we can be the system that helps to build individuals to a better future, then we’ve done our job,” Freeman said. “It’s the collaboration of the entire community on the same path that makes it work.”

Ravitz said he understands the issues with lack of funding for the court system and prosecutors’ offices, but that funding those systems through steep fines and fees on people who often have little or no money to pay will only cause further structural problems.

“We have got to come up with a fairer system regarding fees and costs. This is just another example,” Ravitz said. “I believe all the entities involved in the program, such as DAs, need to be adequately funded. But we can’t do it this way. Everything should be funded on a direct appropriation. I’m shocked that the judges in those counties are doing that.

“We need to stop all this stuff. It’s utterly ridiculous,” he said. “But everybody is trying to get money.”