Ray Carter | October 23, 2019
Oklahoma fees may be excessive, unconstitutional
Oklahoma’s use of court fines and fees may be excessive and potentially unconstitutional, according to experts who spoke at a recent Senate meeting. But law enforcement officials stressed that repeal of those fees will require an offsetting increase in state appropriations.
Senators met to discuss whether the use of fines and fees in Oklahoma’s criminal justice system creates a financial burden that far outweighs the crimes involved.
“We are here today about this,” said Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville, holding aloft a printout that ran six to eight feet in length. “This is a map of the fines and fees that might be charged to somebody in our state, depending on your involvement in our criminal justice system. And it’s quite an eye-opener to me.”
Vikrant Reddy, a senior research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute, said fines and fees can be taken to extremes.
“Criminal offenders must be held accountable—period,” Reddy said. “I want to say that right off the bat and I want to make sure that that is informing our conversation today, because all too often it feels like conversations like this drift into finding ways to just not punish people who have done bad things. That is not what this is about. If you have done something criminal, you do need to be held accountable.
“What this conversation is about is making sure that those punishments fit the crime, that those punishments are proportional, and that those punishments are not so onerous that they prevent people from being able to put their lives back together and re-enter society and become productive Americans again,” Reddy continued.
Two rationales are typically offered for criminal fines, Reddy said—retribution and deterrence. While retribution is a valid reason to impose fines, he said arguments claiming fines are a form of deterrence don’t hold up.
“The problem is that if that really were true you would find that places that charged unusually high fines, they would have lower recidivism rates,” Reddy said. Instead, he said there is “no data whatsoever” showing that relation.
Fees are imposed to cover the costs of the criminal justice system, but Reddy said that is a flawed funding model and that he is “very skeptical of fees, not just onerous fees, but fees altogether in the criminal justice system.”
“If you’ve got the police officers, for example, riding around acting as tax collectors, acting as revenue collectors, you’re really going to wreck a lot of the foundations of your society,” Reddy said. “People are going to become resentful and distrustful of law enforcement.”
Reddy noted a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling has found that fees can become so excessive that they are unconstitutional.
Jari Askins, administrative director of the courts, said similar challenges could arise in Oklahoma.
“There are fines, which are part of punishment,” Askins said. “There are court costs, which are the costs of moving that case through the system. And then there are fees that are assessed for a variety of reasons that are statutory. It’s the fees that concern me the most.”
Askins said court clerks send millions in fee revenue every month to executive-branch agencies. She noted some fees have been challenged in state court and were found unconstitutional. Askins said many fees still in place could fall to similar court challenges because they fund activities not always directly related to the costs created by a specific case.
“I think we have a lot of those that are on there,” Askins said. “I can’t tell you five, 10, 15. We have a lot of fees that don’t directly relate to the case that’s directly in front of the judge at the time.”
She noted many of those fees fund things like a state fingerprinting system and similar programs, and said lawmakers must find a way to cover those costs without fees.
“I think being able to increase appropriations for certain law-enforcement agencies, that allow them to be funded by that direct appropriation, allows an opportunity for real criminal justice reform by repealing the fee that is assessed,” Askins said. “And we can reduce the amount of monies that are owed for defendants right now and certainly for the future.”
Trent Baggett, executive director of the District Attorneys Council, told lawmakers that regardless of whether the system is funded via fees or state appropriations, law enforcement must be funded.
“There are things that the DAs have to do, things the courts have to do, and the amount of money it costs is a lot,” Baggett said. “It is astronomical to a certain extent, and so it has to be paid for by someone. It either has to be paid for by the taxpayer or it has to be paid for by the people who create the problem in the system.”
He said district attorneys currently receive $57 million in state appropriations, which represents 75 percent of the system’s cost.
Tim Laughlin, division chief for the non-capital trial division of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, suggested Oklahoma’s reliance on fees may result in people landing in jail in part to generate revenue.
“It’s hard to go to prison,” Laughlin said. “It’s easy to go to jail. They like it when you’re in jail.”
Laughlin said more fees can be assessed when people are in jail, rather than prison, and many people don’t consider fee costs when agreeing to a plea agreement.
“Our clients are worried about, generally, time, not money,” Laughlin said. “And it’s because they’re not forward-thinking sometimes, and we have to change that. We have to bring them information.”
William Kellough, a former Tulsa County district judge, noted he sentenced “thousands” of people during his time on the bench, mostly to probation. When those sentences were handed down, everyone knew what fines would be assessed, but few knew exactly how much offenders would have to pay in fees, he said.
“The costs are not known,” Kellough said.
He said a court clerk would run the numbers through a computer program “that no one really understood” and the resulting fee typically equaled three to four times the cost of the criminal fine.
“Disclosure and transparency at the time of the plea and at the time of the charge to the jury, in a case that actually goes to a jury, I think is a very sensible and quite practical revision that the law should require,” Kellough said.
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.