Criminal Justice

Criminal justice reform takes aim at ‘debtor’s prisons’

February 25, 2019

Mike Brake

Most of the 28,772 inmates in the custody of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections will leave prison at some point. Those sentenced to probation will face some similar issues as former inmates. In both cases, offenders receive the admonition to report to a parole officer and go and sin no more—but may also face costly fines and court costs along with a difficult period of adjustment.

State Sen. George Young (D-Oklahoma City) has introduced two bills that seek to make the transition from prison or jail less stressful and expensive. His goal is to reduce recidivism.

Senate Bill 203 would change current laws that allow authorities to return a parolee or person on probation to jail or prison for failing to pay various court costs, fines, or fees. Under Young’s bill, a judge would hold a hearing to determine if the offender is able to pay. Only if the answer is “yes” could the judge then issue a bench warrant for contempt of court. The judge could also allow the fines or fees to be paid in installments.

The bill also mandates that when a person is arrested for failure to pay, a hearing must be held within 24 hours. It asks the Court of Criminal Appeals to create rules for how indigents can satisfy monetary judgments imposed by a court.

High fines, court costs, and fees are a perennial issue in the area of criminal justice reform. Offenders often leave court, jail, or prison facing hefty fines and fees. These can include fines imposed as part of their punishment, a per-day fee charged by the county jail, or costs of probationary supervision or court-ordered drug tests.

SB 203 is designed to remove, or at least reduce, the chances that an indigent offender could be returned to custody for failing to pay. Some advocates of criminal justice reform have likened jail terms for financial default to debtor’s prisons.

Another bill, Senate Bill 42, aims to help ease the transition from prison to freedom. Sadly, given persistent recidivism rates of two-thirds or more, many offenders won’t stay out of prison. Young is proposing a pilot program designed to intervene before people leave prison and offer them support and help during those crucial first few months at home.

SB 42 would establish the program first in Oklahoma County for prison inmates due to be discharged there. The bill would pair the Oklahoma Department of Corrections with a local counseling agency in a cooperative effort to make the transition from prison to freedom a smoother one.