Editors note: This is the second of a two-part series about Together Oklahoma’s Criminal Justice forum.
While exact figures vary from district to district, every district attorney’s office in the state receives its funding this way. Ladd explained how this came to be.
“About 15 years ago the legislature said in lieu of giving us state appropriated money we want to put you guys in the supervision business,” Ladd said. He pointed out that district attorneys from across the state were opposed to the idea. They would prefer to receive all needed funding directly from the state instead of relying on fee collections.
Andrew Speno of Right on Crime said this method of funding is a statewide embarrassment.
“It’s not the fault of the DAs, but we’ve set up a system where there is a financial incentive to prosecute because if you prosecute and put someone on probation, then you can collect the fees,” Speno said. “We should be in the business of making sure justice is served both to perpetrators and to victims. Hustling and scrimping to collect fines and fees to make payroll is an absolute outrage.”
He noted that those on probation often cannot afford to pay their fines and fees. This can begin a cycle of incarceration that is difficult to break. He cited a study from the Oklahoma Policy Institute to illustrate his case.
“In Oklahoma County they are only paid 25 percent of the time — in Tulsa County 30 percent,” Speno said. “Then, if you don’t pay your fines and fees guess what happens to you? A warrant is issued for your arrest, and you are going back in. And who pays for you to be back in jail? The taxpayers.”
Lone Grove Municipal Court Judge David Blankenship provided another example of the failure of the fee system that hits closer to home.
“If you are charged with murder in the state of Oklahoma, your fees and costs when they file the charge of murder first degree is $271. If you are charged with DUI in Carter County, your fees and costs are $839,” Blankenship said. “We have the best justice money can buy and the customers are the criminal defendants. There are a lot more DUIs out there who can spend $839 to support the system than there are murderers. That’s where we are today.”
Local attorney Jason May said another issue facing the state concerns the way the courts handle bail and bond for those arrested but not yet convicted of a crime. He said that this system is not intended to be a punishment. Instead it’s supposed to help ensure a defendant appears in court.
“Oklahoma statutes say you can post that by cash, surety bail bonds, or property. The Oklahoma constitution says that you are entitled to post bail by sufficient sureties,” May said. “Unfortunately the judges here in Carter County have taken to setting cash in lieu of bond. That means you can’t use a bondsman; you can’t put up property; you have to put up cash at the clerk’s office in order to get out of jail.”
May said this hurts low-income individuals that do not have access to immediate cash. He pointed out defendants only pay 10 percent of their total bail amount to bondsmen, and they can often pay this out in installments.
“We tell that person if you can’t come up with the cash, you can’t get out of jail,” May said. “I’ve actually appealed this issue three times to the court of criminal appeals, and unfortunately they’ve dodged the issue every time. But I believe it is something that needs to be addressed.”