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Column: Oklahoma's excessive court costs created a self-defeating system

Column: Oklahoma's excessive court costs created a self-defeating system

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When people are sentenced for criminal offenses, in addition to their punishment, they are often assessed thousands in court costs, fees and assessments.

Those range from a $6 law library fee to a $100 trauma care assistance fund fee. There’s a $10 sheriff’s courthouse security fee, a $15 District Attorneys Council assessment fee (misdemeanor) or $50 (felony), a $25 court information system fee and more.

In total, costs on a misdemeanor case are close to $1,000 and a felony, even for a nonviolent offense, go up even more. People charged with multiple counts from the same incident can owe thousands in costs.

Rep. Chris Kannady, R-Oklahoma City, Rep. Danny Williams, R-Seminole and Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville, have been working to find an answer to the urgent issue of these excessive costs.

Offenders who get behind on their payments are arrested and jailed on “cost” warrants without a hearing about their ability to pay.

A recent example is a man who was arrested in Tulsa over Labor Day weekend. Charged in 2015 for misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia and destruction of evidence, he pleaded guilty and completed all the conditions of his 18-month deferred sentence in 2017, except for payment of the $1,690.00 costs.

In 2017, instead of the case being dismissed and expunged from his record, a cost warrant was issued.

He was arrested on Sept. 5 for failure to pay the costs. Because Tulsa has instituted 7-day per week bond hearings, he was released the next day with an order to return on April 22, 2022, for a “cost hearing” on his ability to pay. His address was listed on jail records as homeless.

So many costs have been added that they are onerous even to the average person, and more so to many who earn little to nothing, making it impossible to pay. Only a third of these costs are ever collected.

Most people who can pay do pay, usually immediately or within a reasonable time. But there are thousands of Oklahomans saddled with court debt for years, often with arrest warrants pending, keeping them entangled in the court system, unable to be released from probation or clear their records and unable to move on with their lives.

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has tried to deal with the problem by promulgating rules requiring an ability-to-pay hearing at the time of sentencing, but trial courts say they don’t have time.

Instead, courts routinely order costs that defendants have no ability to pay. Defendants are sent to the court clerk to set up a payment plan, where they learn for the first time how much they owe with no alternative but to agree to a plan.

At some point after they fall behind, a cost warrant is issued with no judicial determination whether they are willfully refusing to pay or simply cannot pay.

The warrants usually stay on the books, sometimes for years, until the defendant comes into contact with law enforcement. Then, they are arrested and jailed.

Depending on the county, they may be released quickly or be in jail for a while. Only then is a judicial effort made to determine ability to pay.

There is little guidance for judges on how to make such a determination. Some judges are unsure whether they have authority or should waive the costs at this point, so they will order a small installment and continue the effort to collect the costs.

The system as it exists is self-defeating.

Law enforcement spends precious time arresting and processing people they have encountered, usually on a traffic violation or some minor offense or no offense. The court system wastes time and money in a futile attempt to collect the uncollectable from people with no money to pay.

Relying on fees to pay for law enforcement and courts developed over many years as legislators added the fees and cut appropriations in tight budget years. Now it’s reached a breaking point only the legislature can address.

Kudos to Rep. Kannady, Rep. Williams and Sen. Daniels who are working to find a solution.

Steve Lewis is a former former U.S. attorney and Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

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