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Convicted Oklahomans Deal with Debt

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Over the years, Oklahoma has increasingly turned to fines and fees from court cases to pay for the court system itself.

But a joint investigation with Oklahoma Watch reveals that as many inmates regain their freedom, they’re still imprisoned by mountains of debt.

As the Oklahoma Public Media Exchange’s Kate Carlton Greer reports in the first of a series, the cost shift is leading some to question the long-term sustainability of a crime-funded judicial branch.

Robin Wertz left prison back in 2007 facing nearly 25-thousand dollars worth of fines and fees related to multiple drug offenses. Without any real job prospects, Wertz knew she could make a phone call out west and earn some quick money to help her with her savings account while she found a job.

“I remember thinking I might as well call my friends in California and have them bring me some dope and I would start selling dope again."

Wertz was able to find a job, and didn’t end up selling drugs. She had her fines reduced to about $6,000, and she should pay them off by this April. But for many former prisoners, the piles of debt are overwhelming and nearly impossible to juggle, especially without a case manager or family member helping out.

“You have this list of stuff you've got to get done. I've got to do this and this and this. If you get out of prison and you ain't got nobody there, then what do you do? You go back to selling drugs is what you do.”
“The reality is we fund a great deal of our criminal justice system on the back on the individuals who commit crimes."

Former House Speaker Kris Steele championed prison reform while he was at the Capitol and now works as the head of the prisoner re-entry program TEEM. He says what was originally built as a “tough on crime” initiative to make up for a dwindling budget over the past two decades has transformed into an insurmountable debt for nonviolent offenders.

“What often times happens is, if you're facing a $10,000 debt, that number is so overwhelming, you just don't even try."

If a defendant can’t pay bail, the debt starts to pile up as soon as a person is booked into a county jail. One of the most widespread and largest fees offenders pay is the jail’s per-diem rate… a daily charge that can be more than $50 per day in some counties.

Those charges are on top of a case’s original court fines and fees, says Oklahoma County Public Defender Bob Ravitz.

“In almost every case there's a mental health fee, there's a victim compensation fee, there could be a lab fee if drugs are involved.”

But it hasn’t always been this way. Oklahoma courts and district attorneys used to get half of their funding through tax money, former lawmakers say. After decades of budget cuts from the state Legislature though, numerous fines and fees stemming from criminal and civil cases now pay for the court system. Supreme Court Vice Chief Justice Douglas Combs says Oklahoma’s judicial branch is more dependent now than ever on that money.

“As the legislature continued to cut our appropriations, it forced us to try to do as much we could in order to collect from those that we could in order to fund the judiciary.”

Right now, the court’s operating budget relies on the ability to collect money from people who are often unable to pay. Oklahoma County Special Judge Donald Easter says revenue streams from former inmates are unpredictable. Last month his court issued about 5-thousand collection notices for people who failed to pay their debts.

“We're dealing with people who have no credit history, who work minimum wage jobs or are not well-to-do. To expect them to support the entire judiciary of the State of Oklahoma, or even a significant part of it would be a mistake, just like it's a mistake to think the emergency room could ever support the entire hospital."

These court fees don’t just stay with the courts. Since 2007, civil and criminal collections statewide totaled nearly 1.2 billion dollars, and roughly one-third of that money was earmarked for state agencies like the Tourism and Wildlife Departments, according to a 2014 state Supreme Court study.

Former House Speaker Kris Steele questions the financial wisdom of the current system. Beyond that, he thinks it’s just unfair.

“When it comes to non-violent offenders, while I'm a big believer in individual responsibilities and believe that there needs to be sanctions and repercussions for any crime that's committed, I think those sanctions and those consequences have to be appropriate.”

Without a case manager to help former inmates manage debt, Steele says it can be nearly impossible to keep up with payments after incarceration. And he argues the tough-on-crime mentality hasn’t worked. Oklahoma prisons are overflowing, and Oklahoma imprisons more inmates per capita than almost every other state in the country.

You can find more of the series “Prisoners of Debt” online at OklahomaWatch.org.

Next time, Kate looks at the legislative history that led to the fines and fees imposed on prisoners today.

Kate Carlton Greer was a general assignment reporter for KGOU and Oklahoma Public Media Exchange.
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