Attorney Meagan Taylor will never forget the tears of a client she had while working in the Oklahoma County Public Defender’s office — an older man who owed thousands of dollars in court fines and fees for marijuana-related charges and a ticket for fishing without a license. 

A judge suggested the man get rid of his life insurance policy to help him better afford his court debt. But the policy was important to him, Taylor said, since he wouldn’t be able to leave much behind for the grandson he took care of on his fixed income. 

The man left the courtroom crying, said Taylor, who now serves as the director of the Oklahoma-City-based Diversion Hub, a nonprofit that offers support services for people involved in the criminal justice system. 

“This wasn’t someone that willfully was neglecting to pay,” Taylor said. “ This was someone that just absolutely had no money at the end of the month.” 

Fines, fees and court costs have recently made up over 70 percent of the budget of district courts, according to data from the Administrative Office of the Courts. That number dropped by about 30 percent in 2020 due to reduced collections during the coronavirus pandemic. Court collections are only expected to make up about 30 percent total of the courts’ roughly $70 million budget this fiscal year. State appropriations have filled the gaps.

Critics say fines and fees are an unreliable source of funding that unfairly burdens the poor.  About 80 percent of criminal defendants are indigent, and the collection rate on court debts is only 25 percent, according to information presented by Tim Laughlin, director of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, at an interim study at the Oklahoma state Capitol last year. 

In a sweeping move, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, has filed Senate Bill 1458, which would remove a huge chunk of fees — roughly $41 million in recurring revenue — from state law. 

“It’s a lot of money,” Thompson said. “And we may get to the end and can’t do all of it. But this is what we need to be asking for and the discussion we need to be having.” 

Thompson said his goal is to replace most of that money with state appropriations, which is a more consistent source of funding than court debt. The time is right, he said, because the state has about $2 billion in reserves, more than $1 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money to spend and record-breaking tax revenues over the past year.

The Legislature has repeatedly had to give the courts additional funding when collections from fees came in lower than projected. 

The coronavirus pandemic brought the state’s reliance on fines and fees to a head again last year. Lawmakers were forced to fast-track $7.5 million in additional appropriations to help state district courts make payroll after reduced fines and fees collections. 

But even though the state is in a healthy financial position this year, Gov. Kevin Stitt and other leaders have called for a cautious spending approach that keeps most agency budgets flat

Several state agencies, including the district courts, asked for increased appropriations during pre-session budget hearings, and many focused on the need to increase employee pay. State budget negotiations typically last until the last few days of session and are kept confidential, so it’s unclear what might make it into the budget. 

The governor’s office and several legislative leaders said they would be open to working on addressing fines and fees. House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said the issue would likely come up during budget negotiations.

“It is going to take more money,” McCall said. “The court’s ability to collect fines and fees is greatly diminished… The amount of the fees have become astronomical for people.” 

A handful of other bills to reduce penalties for people who are unable to pay their court debt are also eligible to be heard this session. 

“While those who have committed offenses need to pay some of the cost, it is my belief that they should not have to carry the entire weight of the court system,” Thompson said. 

Funding district courts

Over the last few decades, the Legislature has added or increased a variety of fees to shore up the budgets of various state agencies, local prosecutor offices and district courts instead of appropriating general revenue dollars during economic downturns. 

The cost of a speeding ticket for driving 20 miles per hour over the speed limit increased by nearly 150 percent between 1992 to 2016, according to the left-leaning think tank Oklahoma Policy Institute.

The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, the state Mental Health Department and the Department of Human Services all receive tens of thousands of dollars a year in fees. 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, or CASAs. 

Close to 20 percent of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation’s budget and nearly 70 percent of the budget for the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training are made up through fees, Thompson’s office said.

Courts collected nearly $50 million in fees in fiscal year 2020 that went to fund various state agencies, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts. That’s the lowest amount collected in recent years, which officials attribute to the pandemic, criminal justice reform and court cases challenging the use of private companies to collect fines and fees in some counties. 

“As judges are trying to follow the laws that (lawmakers) are passing related to reform, and the opportunities to look at ability to pay versus flat unwilling to pay, all collections have gone down,” said Jari Askins, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts. 

‘Astronomically high’ court debt

In some Oklahoma counties, a person can have their driver’s license suspended or can be jailed for nonpayment or for failing to appear in court to argue their inability to pay. 

Over the past year, the Diversion Hub has worked with more than 1,200 clients who needed help paying fines and fees. That’s just a fraction of the roughly 20,000 cost warrants Oklahoma County sent out for failure to pay during the same time.

A judge determines a person’s financial ability to pay their debts if that person requests a Rule 8 hearing. But in Oklahoma County, cases are typically continued instead of dismissed and a person is required to come back to court repeatedly to present their financial documents, Taylor said. 

A class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of indigent people in 2017 claimed Oklahoma sheriffs and a private contractor used predatory tactics to collect court debt. But a federal judge dismissed the case in 2021, ruling that it was up to the state to address its system of fines and fees.

Many Diversion Hub clients live in fear of arrest because of unpaid court costs they can’t afford, Taylor said. 

“These criminal fees and fines are so astronomically high that our clients feel like they’re digging out of a hole that just keeps getting deeper and deeper,” she said.

Bills in the 2022 session

In addition to Thompson’s bill, Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville, has introduced Senate Bill 1532, which would allow courts to waive fines and fees for people who have made consistent payments for the last several years. 

“We should incentivize you to pay, and we will do that by forgiving the balance of what you owe if you make these payments consistently,” Daniels said. 

Daniels also has a pending bill from last year that would give judges more authority to waive or reduce fees. The bill would also stop people from being arrested or incarcerated unless the court has found a person has wilfully refused to pay court debt, as well as allow community service as an alternative to payment and eliminate drivers’ license suspensions for failure to pay traffic tickets within 120 days. 

The bill stalled last year but has a new House author and is eligible to be heard again this session. 

Thompson’s bill has not been heard yet in committee, though he said he’s received support from other lawmakers and the governor’s office.   

Untangling the state’s many fees and the revenue they generate for each state agency will be a complicated task, Daniels said. While some agencies receive millions of dollars, others get only small amounts from fees, and those funds likely wouldn’t need to be replaced. 

“People would be unhappy,” she said. “But this requires us to look at all these agencies and say ‘really, is this particular program or this little piece of your budget so critical that we need to keep arresting and jailing people for nonpayment?’”