For more than two decades, Oklahoma has turned to fines and fees instead of state appropriations to fund the court system, and the debt former prisoners now face has becoming increasingly burdensome as the state has grown more and more reluctant to raise taxes.
The roots of Oklahoma’s crime-funded court system start back in 1992 with State Question 640. The public was mad about tax hikes, so they passed a referendum making it nearly impossible for lawmakers to raise taxes. Legislators then began turning to other ways to pad the state budget, like fines and fees.
“The legislature today obviously is hampered by that state question, and so I think this is one of the ways they responded to that,” Dwayne Steidley says.
Steidley was a legislator from Claremore when voters approved the state question and now presides as a district judge in Rogers County. He was at the Capitol when fellow lawmakers started increasing fines and fees to more heavily fund the courts and other state agencies.
He jokes that he now reaps as a judge what he sowed as a representative.
“I've got to see both sides of the picture for sure. It's gotten far worse since I've left the legislature in terms of how much the courts have to pay for themselves.”
Steidley’s referring to the drastic increase in fees over the years. And Vice Chief Justice Douglas Combs with the State Supreme Court says it’s getting worse.
“The example that you hear all the time is a speeding ticket. I mean, 1 to 10 miles over the speed limit, the minimum fine and cost for that is $188.50. The fine itself is $10,” Combs says.
Criminals as an ‘ATM’
Since the state question passed in 1992, lawmakers have added more than 30 different fines and fees for state and local governments to the court’s collection duties. Last year, one-third of the fines and fees Oklahoma courts brought in went to other agencies, according to a 2014 State Supreme Court study.
“You see a legislative leadership and a governor willing to use criminals as an ATM to fund other parts of government,” Democratic Minority Leader Scott Inman says.
He serves on the House Budget and Appropriations Committee and has been at the Capitol since 2007. He says the state is at a critical point in funding its agencies.
It’s politically untenable to raise taxes, and while the economy is growing right now, Inman says the bucket of money lawmakers spend on state agencies continues to shrink.
“I'm particularly concerned that eventually when we put so much of the burden to pay for the criminal justice system on the backs of really poor, indigent criminals, we're going to have a criminal justice system that suffers and is unable to perform its stated duty,” Inman says.
“Those decisions were all made in the name of increasing public safety,” former State House Speaker Republican Kris Steele says. He argues Oklahoma’s criminal court system is a bad return on taxpayer investment: costs keep increasing and there’s no proportional decrease in crime.
He also says the state is doing a bad job rehabilitating offenders to become tax producers instead of consumers.
“I don't think that the fees and fines structure that we currently have in place is fair to allowing a person to move on with their life, to learn from their mistakes and to ultimately be a contributing member of our community,” Steele says.
A Politically Safe Bet
Steele spent 12 years at the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and he saw significant increases in these court costs during his time in office. He says for the most part, the procedural changes – like shifting the cost of medical treatment from law enforcement to the offender in 2005 – were enacted quietly.
Former State Senator Cal Hobson, who’s had his own experiences with the criminal justice system after being charged with two DUI’s in 2014, says tacking on court fees is so simple because criminals are such an easy revenue target.
“Who's going to give a rip if you have a higher drug court assessment, or a higher daily counseling rate because it's just a little fee, it's just a dollar or just five dollars, or whatever.”
But those little fees can add up, Hobson says.
And they almost have to. Rogers County District Judge Dwayne Steidley says the court system used to get half its budget from the general revenue fund, but that’s decreased to almost nothing.
“Today, we fund probably 90 percent or more of the operation of the courts actually out of the money that the court collects,” Steidley says.
He and other judges across the state suggest they may only be digging a deeper hole. The more successful courts are in collecting money from criminals, the greater the chance their appropriation will be cut.