OKLAHOMA CITY — When riots erupted two years ago in Ferguson, Missouri, some of the tension in the black community was blamed on the city’s use of court fines and fees that burdened many low-income people with debts they could not pay.
Since then, Missouri has reduced the maximum fines for traffic tickets and other violations and limited the share of city budgets supported by fees. California and other states also adopted reforms, offering amnesty to some indigent offenders with large debts.
Oklahoma made changes too, but its lawmakers went the other direction. They increased dozens of fees covering all criminal and traffic offenses, hoping to more than double the share of state revenue harvested from the same source five years ago.
“Public safety is a core function of government, and we need to find some way to fund it,” said Republican Rep. Scott Biggs, a former prosecutor who supported the increases. If defendants “didn’t commit these misdemeanors or felonies, they wouldn’t be paying any of it.”
Under the plan, fees and fines will generate more than 5 percent of state revenue, up from 2.2 percent in 2011. Comparable spikes are rare, although it’s hard to track different systems. No agency gathers national data on state-by-state fine revenue.
Behind the move is Oklahoma’s miserable financial condition. The state faced a $1.3 billion budget hole this year because of the energy industry’s slump and the Republican Legislature’s earlier income tax cuts, which sharply reduced revenue. Many state programs absorbed deep cuts.
Also, wringing more money from offenders makes for good politics in a conservative law-and-order state. But the idea still has a few catches.
It’s not clear how much more money can be extracted from people who usually have little to begin with. The average parolee in one nonprofit’s post-release program earned $10.25 an hour, barely covering living expenses. And arresting nonpayers puts them back in prison at state expense, at an average of $40 per day, or $17,100 a year, for minimum-security inmates.
For many defendants, it’s “so much money, they just can’t afford it,” said Bob Ravitz, who has headed the Oklahoma County Public Defender’s Office for nearly 30 years. “I couldn’t even afford it, and I make a pretty good living.”
In low-income black communities, many people resent police for writing violations with spiraling fees.
However, “A lot of their frustration is pointed in the wrong direction,” said Democratic Rep. Mike Shelton of Oklahoma City, who is black. “Unfortunately, it’s all become a money game, and you have to lay the blame in the lap of the Legislature for continually cutting taxes and not properly funding agencies.”
Oklahoma has more than 60 different fees aimed at criminal defendants, ranging from a $5 Bureau of Narcotics fee in marijuana possession cases to $3,000 in drug trafficking cases, aside from the penalties assessed by judges.
A separate tier of fees applies to defendants ordered to attend classes in parenting, anger management or other remedial action.
The Legislature this year doubled the court costs assessed in traffic cases to $20, in misdemeanors to $30 and in felonies to $50. That’s on top of any fines. The measure is designed to raise another $2.2 million annually.
Filing fees were hiked 25 percent for custody and alimony cases, and fees for “dispute resolution” were tripled for all civil suits. Even in a single case, the layers of fees pile up.
Tim Yarbrough, 56, who recently completed a two-year prison term for drug possession, still owes more than $5,000, the result of 19 separate one-time fees, $40-per-month in supervision costs and other charges.
“It’s like a ball and chain. I drag it around every day,” said Yarbrough, who was waiting to use a computer at a downtown library to apply for jobs. He needs to find work that will both pay his bills and pay his fines.
Lesa Devaughan, released in April after serving nearly four years for forgery, said she now owes close to $1,000 a month in supervision and other fees after being processed through four different county jails. Her restaurant job pays $10 an hour.
“I don’t want to go back to jail,” said Devaughan, 49, who shares a modest two-bedroom apartment with a roommate. “I just got a new job where I’m stable enough to pay something.”
The fee dilemma is on display in courthouses every day where those who fall behind go before a judge.
At a recent docket before Oklahoma County District Judge Ray Elliott, one man said he was a single father trying to make his child support payments and get his children in school and had no money left. A woman facing jail time for a drug charge said her father spent all they had bailing her out of jail.
Elliott, a former prosecutor who once sentenced a woman to life in prison for shoplifting, said he can’t just send them all back to jail.
“If it’s only a matter of paying costs, they’re going to get a chance,” Elliott said. “Probably two.”
Mike Boring, district attorney for four rural counties in western Oklahoma, acknowledged the problems and said many prosecutors are uncomfortable with any practice that forces them to rely on criminal cases for money to run their offices. But, he added, operations like his need to make up for lost state funds.
Yarbrough convinced a judge to delay his payments until January.
“I try not to get overwhelmed by my past, because I know the end result is I go back to prison,” he said. “And then when you get out, you still owe, but then you owe more.”
Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy .