bill would reduce costs associated with sentencing in Oklahoma courts |
OKLAHOMA CITY — A bill passing through the Legislature would remove certain fees charged to offenders convicted of certain crimes.
Senate Bill 1458, by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, passed the Senate last week and is now heading to the House for consideration.
Thompson said the charges would be offset through the credits process rather than having the offender pay for them.
“We’re not cutting state agencies,” Thompson said. “We are funding it. We’re just going to take it off people’s backs.
Jari Askins, administrative director of the courts, said a number of assessed fees go to executive branch agencies for specific programs or to help run the agency.
During economic downturns, the totals amounted to something many offenders couldn’t afford, she said.
In 1992, voters passed State Question 640, which required a supermajority in both legislative houses to raise taxes. Otherwise, a tax increase would have to be approved by a vote of the people.
For years after, lawmakers added and raised fees to help state government operations because it was too difficult to raise taxes, Askins said.
Charlie Hannema, a spokesman for Governor Kevin Stitt, said the issue was an item on Stitt’s agenda.
“Changes like this are possible thanks to the leadership of Governor Stitt and working with the Legislature to remain fiscally prudent and create the largest savings account in state history with more than $2.3 billion,” Hannema said in a statement.
Stitt thinks Oklahomans shouldn’t be required to pay charges that have nothing to do with the crimes they committed, Hannema said.
“If these programs are still worth funding, the governor believes they should be appropriated by the legislature instead of being funded in perpetuity by fees imposed on defendants,” Hannema said.
Bob Wyatt, president of the Oklahoma Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said some offenders released from prison face hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees they cannot afford.
Because they have felony convictions and aren’t preferred employee candidates, it’s harder to find a job and pay the fees, he said.
Additionally, many have families and are required to pay child support, some of whom may already be in arrears, Wyatt said.
He said the inability to pay fees probably affects 50% of those released from prison. Some end up behind bars because they can’t pay, he said.
“When you look at all these charges, you’re often shocked,” he said. “What is the link with the alleged crime?
The Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control receives fees for forensic science and drug education.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections receives fees for community sentences.
The Office of the Attorney General collects fees for victim services.
The Oklahoma Department of Health receives fees for trauma care.
The Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services collects fees for addiction education and treatment.
“We’ve compiled a list of fees paid by defendants and highlighted those that go to executive branch agencies,” Hannema said. “These are the ones who have been included in this legislation.”
Hannema said it’s important to note that the measure does not reduce fines, which are part of the sentence, or the ability to award restitution to the victim.
“I think it’s a serious problem statewide and has been for a number of years,” Oklahoma County public defender Bob Ravitz said.
Some who cannot pay revert to criminal acts, he said.
Some who cannot pay stop seeing their probation officers and participating in programs on which their release is conditional, Ravitz said.
“It’s been a huge problem for at least 20 years in this state, and it needs to be fixed,” Ravitz said.
Tulsa County public defender Corbin Brewster could not be reached for comment.
In 2010, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that three fees attached to civil case filings were invalid because they did not go to funding the court system.
The High Court struck down a $10 fee which funded child abuse investigations, a $20 fee which funded adoption records and a $3 fee which funded victim services.
Access to court is violated if those seeking to plead have to pay for unrelated programs, the judges said.