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Report Says Underfunded Justice System Helps Drive Oklahoma's High Incarceration Rate

A new report says Oklahoma’s underfunded criminal justice system is a big reason the state puts so many people in prison.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law report says courts are underfunded by the state — in some cases, getting just 10% of their operating costs. District attorneys, public defenders and other entities are in similar positions.

Arnold Ventures Criminal Justice Director Juliene James said to make up the difference, courts are collecting not just criminal fines, but also 40 different fees, ranging from supervised release fees to jury trial fees.

"The system has turned the ability to fine someone for partaking in society into a piggybank that allows them to operate their systems, allows them to funnel some of this money into pet projects," James said.

According to the report, Oklahoma’s justice system is almost entirely paid for by fines and fees, incentivizing their collection.

Robert Friedman with Georgetown’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection said, for example, after striking a deal with debt collectors in 2010, the Oklahoma Sheriffs' Association’s assets grew from less than $53,000 to $3.3 million.

"They’re not going to back down and let that go now. They have every reason in the world to keep pushing and doing so as aggressively as possible," Friedman said.

Myesha Braden with the Lawyer’s Committee said the need to collect fines and fees leads to courts skimping on ability-to-pay hearings required by law and issuing arrest warrants when someone falls behind on a payment plan, which causes even broader harm.

"As the justice system becomes more closely tied to revenue generation, people begin to lose confidence in the fairness of their systems," Braden said.

The report says in 2017, Tulsa County issued 22,000 arrest warrants for failures to pay.

Compounding the problem, Oklahoma law punishes officials for not collecting fines and fees, and those costs are disproportionately levied against poor defendants.

The report says the result is low-income Oklahomans getting trapped in a cycle of not being able to pay a fine or fee, being arrested for it, and not being able to find a decent job after release because of their criminal record or debts.

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.