House Studies District Court System Funding Structure

9/8/2021 8:43:00 AM

OKLAHOMA CITY – Reps. Danny Williams, R-Seminole, Chris Kannady, R-Oklahoma City, Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, and Bob Ed Culver, R-Tahlequah, held an interim study Tuesday to review funding for the Oklahoma Court System, focusing on district courts. The study was held before the House Judiciary-Civil Committee, which is chaired by Kannady. Culver is vice chair. 


The study examined fines and fees and how they are used to fund the court system and explored ways the Legislature might instead appropriate money for the courts.


“Yesterday’s study highlighted how inefficient the fines and fees system is in Oklahoma’s courts,” Williams said. “Our public servants are burdened with the impossible task of trying to collect money that we will never see, and it’s on taxpayers’ own dime. It’s time to consider potential avenues for a new approach that saves time and taxpayer dollars while ensuring people who commit crimes are fairly punished.”


“Fines are a necessary part of punishment for crimes, but the fine should not be worse than the crime itself,” Kannady said. “We are working to find a balance between fines that are appropriate and fines that are unnecessarily punitive, while also seeing how state appropriated dollars can help balance out the system.”


“Oklahomans accept that people who commit crimes should pay fines and fees as part of their punishment,” Humphrey said. “But right now, we’ve got a system that indebts people to the point they can never return to being contributing members of society. This leaves the taxpayer paying the higher cost of incarceration. This study will give us ideas of how to make the court system work for society not against it.”


“Under the current system, we run the risk of perpetuating the problem we are trying to solve,” Culver said. “The goal for any person who gets in trouble with law enforcement should be to rehabilitate them into productive members of society. If they are constantly indebted to the court system, that makes it much harder to move on with their lives. It’s important that we in the Legislature work with experts to determine if state-appropriated dollars can help fix some of the issues we are seeing.”


During the study, Jari Askins, Oklahoma administrative director of the courts; Oklahoma County Judge Natalie Mai; Tim Laughlin, executive director of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System; Seminole County Judge Timothy Olsen; and other speakers each explained various court costs, fines, assessments and fees a defendant might be required to pay as well as the process for appearing before the court and what happens for failure to appear. 


Mai showed an order to appear before the court for payment, which included instructions for the issuance of a warrant for the defendant’s arrest if they fail to appear. 


Laughlin explained further the procedures of district and municipal courts relating to imprisonment for nonpayment of fines and costs. He also explained the fee schedule for criminal filing fees as well as the schedule of reimbursement for defendants. 


Askins gave collection examples for both criminal and civil cases and showed the state judicial fund process as well as total court fund collection totals from 2014 to 2020. Court clerks retain approximately $37 million each year, she said. Askins also detailed executive branch and executive agency fees. 


Olsen explained selected court rules related to the collection of fines, costs and fees as well as the various hearings a defendant might face. He also added his personal observations and made recommendations to the study authors. 


Damion Shade, criminal justice policy analyst with the Oklahoma Policy Institute, discussed the negative affects of the steep cost of court fines and fees on Oklahoma families and communities. He suggested the state could better serve law enforcement, the courts and communities through a different mechanism that would provide more adequate funding for the courts.   


Other speakers at the study included Max Cook, district attorney for Creek and Okfuskee counties; Greg Mashburn, district attorney for Cleveland, Garvin and McClain counties; and Steve Lewis, a former speaker of the House and a former United States attorney for the Norther District of Oklahoma.