VIEWPOINT: Fixing Oklahoma’s Broken Justice System | Opinion

Did you know that the main way to pay the Oklahoma court system is through fines and fees? The state depends on the offender to pay for the justice system with less than 20% funded by tax money.

You might think that’s a good idea. Let criminals and delinquents pay the cost of their crime as a deterrent. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work as Oklahoma continues to have the highest incarceration rate in the nation with less than 30% of these fees and fines being collected. This system actually appears to be costing taxpayers more money by contributing to the revolving door of incarceration that more proportionally affects the poor and those of color.

“Thousands of Oklahomans, many of whom have been convicted of non-violent offenses, face heavy fines and costs levied by county, state or private probation providers as part of their incarceration conditions and monitoring. These costs include payment for jail, trials, parole, mandatory testing, electronic monitoring, and other miscellaneous fees totaling hundreds and thousands of dollars that most cannot afford. to pay. As a result, they remain perpetually subject to incarceration. An additional consideration is the cost of children which may end up being the responsibility of social services.

When fines and costs are not paid, warrants are issued and the offender may be incarcerated again for an additional fee. Although debtors’ prisons are legally unconstitutional, the past few decades have seen a marked increase in the number of individuals who are nonetheless imprisoned for non-payment of debts.

Adding to the frustration in Oklahoma, an outdated computer system often makes violators unable to get lists of fines and fees and where to pay with different counties not communicating with each other about all fines. That means a judge trying to adjust unreasonable fines can’t see the total burden, whether it’s $1,500 or more compared to the state average of $6,700 per person.

Courts routinely fail to conduct Rule 8 inquiries that determine a defendant’s ability to pay. Poorer Oklahomans inevitably fall behind on their payments and fall victim to an endless cycle of arrest warrants, arrests, driver’s license suspensions and incarceration, compounding the incarceration problem of Oklahoma mass.

Poor people can only pay a public offender, can’t pay bail and only get evidence against them 10 days before trial. Thus, 95% of charges are pleaded regardless of guilt.

In Oklahoma, as in many states, the community corrections system has become a key driver of mass incarceration. Enforcing and collecting these criminal charges places an additional burden on local police and sheriff’s offices, making them responsible not only for the safety of their community, but also for fundraising.

The cost of this operation takes money away from viable court services that could reduce recidivism such as drug courts, mental health support and victim services.

It’s time for the Oklahoma Legislature to face the hard truth that the justice system cannot be funded on the backs of our state’s poorest people. Oklahoma needs to invest money in reform, education, health and psychiatric facilities to reverse this problem.

Call your local representative and support Senate Bill 951. Additional information can be found at VOICE (Voices Organized in Civic Engagement) or at okpolicy.org.

Suzanne Byrd is an Enid resident and occasional editor for Enid News & Eagle.