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Poorest Parts of Tulsa County Hit Hardest by Rising Court Costs

Oklahoma Policy Institute

Tulsa County’s poor, majority black neighborhoods are struggling the most with rising court costs.

For example, in Turley, where 57 percent of residents are black and the poverty rate is nearly 40 percent, the total court debt amounts to $590 per adult. In midtown Tulsa, where 3 percent of residents are black and the poverty rate is 7 percent, it’s $47.

The court debts in four north Tulsa ZIP codes, including Turley's, range from $323 to $590 per adult. Their poverty rates, meanwhile, go as high as 42 percent.

"For people who are trying to get out of poverty, this is a huge albatross around their necks to try to climb out," said Oklahoma Policy Institute analyst Ryan Gentzler, who wrote the report on court debt.

The court debt disparities are similar but less extreme in Oklahoma County. The disparities could be addressed by making court fines and fees proportional to income.

"And that debt shouldn't last forever. There should be a horizon," Gentzler said. "So, if you make payments for, say, two years, every month, the rest of your debt could be forgiven."

Gentzler said poor neighborhoods are more heavily policed and their residents less able to pay, a situation that can trap them in a cycle of racking up more debt if they’re arrested for minor crimes or failure to pay. While court fines and fees have increased, court collections have held steady.

"What this really tells me is that we're trying to fund so much of our justice system, fund our courts, on the backs of the people who can least afford it," Gentzler said.

Gentzler would like to see state lawmakers fund courts through appropriations rather than making them rely on fines and fees. Four in five criminal defendants are considered indigent and eligible for a public defender.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.