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City Council Digs into Tulsa Court Fines as It Restarts Equality Indicators Work

Matt Trotter

Tulsa city councilors resumed work on policies that might close gaps identified in the city’s Equality Indicators reports with a deep dive into municipal court fines and fees.

Their discussion was part of a special council committee meeting on Wednesday. A rethinking of the entire fine structure is one possibility. Councilor Kara Joy McKee said set amounts are inherently inequitable.

"One hundred dollars doesn’t mean the same thing to two different people, and there are many municipalities that have a fee structure that bases what people are charged on their income," McKee said.

Other potential solutions councilors proposed include not sending delinquent cases to collections, not suspending driver licenses for unpaid fines and not arresting people solely for unpaid fines. They noted those actions disproportionately affect low-income Tulsans.

Councilors also agreed simply getting to court can be difficult for some people facing municipal violations and came up with possible alternatives to the current model of showing up and paying in person, including night and weekend dockets, court by phone, and public kiosks.

Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper said the underlying issue is the city does not adequately fund courts, leaving them reliant upon fines and fees to operate.

"A result of that is that police can be incentivized to prioritize infractions that come with higher fees because the whole system is set up that way," Hall-Harper said.

Hall-Harper said there also must be improvement in municipal warrant notification, as she’s heard too many stories from people who racked up hundreds of dollars in fines over years because they were unaware of a warrant against them.

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.
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