Perhaps when you were still in school in one of your history classes you heard about “debtors’ prisons.” In the absence of bankruptcy laws, these were places where people who could not pay public or private debts could end up for years because there was no debt forgiveness. You might want to think that today we live in a more enlightened era, one in which financial hardship does not necessarily translate into what amounts to a life sentence. But when it comes to fines and fees imposed by the legal system in Oklahoma, you would be wrong.

What Am I paying for When I Am Assessed a Fine or Fee?

Fines and fees can have a three-fold purpose: to serve as a punishment in lieu of or in addition to a jail or prison sentence, to help offset the costs of maintaining the law enforcement and judicial system, and to serve as an ersatz form of revenue-raising by the government. It is this last function that can lead to serious problems, because when the government finds itself short of funds, the temptation to ramp up financial penalties as a quick fix is hard for lawmakers to resist. The result can be a “nickel-and-dime effect” that starts from when you are arrested and builds from there:

  • Many Oklahoma counties impose “jail stay” fees on those who are convicted of crimes, which amount to a daily rent of the property jail space those people occupy if they are being held in jail before and during trial. Considering that criminal trials can take weeks or even months to resolve, even a $35 daily jail stay fee can accumulate into thousands of dollars owed to the county.
  • Other county court fees that can add up during trial and become due on conviction include costs for fingerprinting, laboratory analysis, administrative costs like booking and bond filing, mental health assessments, district attorney prosecution fees, monthly probation fees or even the use of the facility’s law library. These are in addition to any fines assessed for the crime itself.
  • Aside from fees, fines imposed upon conviction can add tremendous debt, especially when it comes to drug-related charges that can easily run into tens of thousands of dollars or even into six figures.
  • Once you are in prison, the fees still add up. You can be charged up to $20 to make a telephone call, or even “transaction fees” if your relatives deposit funds into your account at the jail or prison. Even if you are working while you serve your time, you can be paid so little that the fees might still outstrip the money you make.
  • Although the concept of debtor’s prison has been done away with (you will eventually be released on completing your sentence even if you still owe fees and fines), when you are released the government will waste no time trying to collect from you any outstanding balance. Typically within three days of release you will be summoned to make arrangements to pay. And if your punishment includes probation, the fees can still keep coming for things like supervision, drug testing and monitoring. If your license has been suspended, you will need to pay reinstatement fees (which accumulate with each suspension). If you have children, you can even be assessed fees for back child support while you were in prison.

And the perverse “cherry on top” of it all is that is if you can’t pay off all your fines and fees, you can be sent back to jail as a result. So in a real sense, debtor’s prison is still a modern-day reality in Oklahoma.

Revenue Raising On the Backs of the Poor

In Oklahoma, raising taxes can be difficult for the state legislature to agree upon, and petition-based revenue raising during elections is also uncertain. In the past quarter-century or so, instead of tackling how to increase government revenues the old-fashioned way, counties in particular have become more creative in finding new ways to assess fees on those who are ensnared in the criminal justice system. The types of fees that can be assessed have multiplied almost threefold during this time, from 23 to 63.

The trouble is, the people on whose backs these fees are placed are often among the ones least able to pay; getting a job after being released from jail or prison, for example, can take a long time, and the job you get may not pay very well. But the fines and fees never, ever go away. If you end up trapped in the “revolving door” of being sent back to jail because you have not paid what you owe from the last time you were there, breaking out of this cycle of poverty may become impossible.

How Can I Avoid What Amounts to “Debtor’s Prison” in Oklahoma?

Of course, the easiest way to keep from being saddled with government-imposed debt via the criminal justice system is to avoid that system. This is not always possible, however. If you are facing criminal charges, your next best line of defense against becoming a government cash-cow is to either avoid conviction, or at least to reduce the charges against you or the sentence and related fines and fees that are imposed. This is where your defense attorney can become a vital ally for you. An experienced defense attorney can help you to keep from being ground up financially by the government.