Lawsuit Alleges Washington County Judges, Indigent Defense System Effectively Ran Debtors' Prison

Mar 21, 2019

A lawsuit filed Thursday alleges three Washington County District Court judges routinely eschewed required hearings on poor defendants’ ability to pay fines and fees, then often sent them back to jail for nonpayment.

According to the court filing, plaintiffs Amanda Feenstra, Lonnie Feenstra and Sharonica Carter were never even told they had a right to a hearing on their ability to pay court-ordered fines and fees. They were originally convicted on nonviolent offenses or youthful offender charges, but they’ve been in and out of jail for nonpayment and now owe thousands of dollars apiece.

Myesha Braden with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said in Carter's case, the now 23-year-old spent two years in juvenile detention and was ordered to start paying her fines and fees when she turned 18 and was released in October 2013.

"She had not worked. She had been underage. But within three months, when she still did not have a job and had not paid on the fines and fees, she was sent back to jail," Braden said.

The lawsuit names Judges Jared Sigler and John Gerkin, and former Judge Curtis DeLapp. It also names the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System in the action. Braden said that’s because OIDS contracts held back 10 percent until attorneys verified all cases that year were closed, giving them incentive to wrap up quickly and creating a conflict of interest.

"We believe that is why these OIDS attorneys, at the time of assessment of fines and fees, are not arguing on behalf of their clients to insist on the ability-to-pay hearing," Braden said.

The Lawyers' Committee could bring similar actions in other Oklahoma counties. Braden said the state's resistance to adequately fund courts is partly to blame.

"Oklahoma’s court system is funded almost entirely by fines and fees collected from the criminally accused, and the state empowers county and municipal courts to raise revenue through the aggressive pursuit of the fines and fees established by the legislature," Braden said.

The Lawyers’ Committee won a similar claim against judges in New Orleans.