Debtors’ prison faces Oklahoma defendants, lawsuit states

A civil rights lawsuit filed Thursday contends that Oklahoma, the state with a higher incarceration rate than anywhere else in the country, operates debtors' prisons, as defendants end up with increasing fines and more jail time simply for being poor.

As she was released from a juvenile detention facility in 2013, Tulsa teenager Sharonica Carter still was facing a $2,700 fine imposed when Carter first pleaded guilty in 2011.

Five years and two jail stays later, the amount that Carter now owes totals $5,000.

On Thursday, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed suit on behalf of Carter and other Oklahoma residents who, the lawsuit contends, are being trapped in an unending cycle of debt and incarceration.

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Though specifically prohibited by state law, the suit states, judges in Washington County, Oklahoma regularly and routinely administer court fines and fees without considering the defendant’s ability to pay such costs. Publicly-provided defense attorneys are also failing to advise those defendants of their right to require that their ability to pay be considered when fines are assessed, the suit contends.

The fines and fees can wreak havoc on the poor, causing criminal cases for minor offenses to linger on for years as unpaid debts lead to incarceration, which lead to additional fees, then to more incarceration and more fees, according to the lawsuit.

The court system’s failure to follow the state law perpetuates “a system where the poor are experiencing justice a different way,” said Myesha Braden, Director of the Criminal Justice Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Poor defendants end up paying far more because of additional fees and incarceration, she said.

The law firm Latham and Watkins has joined the civil rights law firm in bringing the lawsuit, which names three current and former Washington County judges as well as the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, which provides poor defendants with court representation. Among those named was former Washington County District Judge Curtis DeLapp, whom the lawsuit states failed to inquire about Carter’s ability to pay back the fees he was requiring.

The system has forced another of the plaintiffs in the case to make the choice of risking jail to provide for her husband and six children, or paying court fees, Braden said at a press conference Thursday.

“To saddle them with the threat of incarceration when they are unable to pay fines and fees through no fault of their own is simply unfair, it is unjust, and it is unconstitutional,” she said.

Braden said the problems alleged in the suit are not unique to Washington County. Across Oklahoma, the criminal justice system is paid for almost entirely by court fines and fees, she said. Similar issues have cropped up all across the country, she said.

The lawsuit notes Oklahoma’s status as the state with the highest incarceration rate in the country.

In Washington County, the suit states, criminal defendants can be jailed when they fail to make a court payment, which carry fines for the failure to pay in addition to new fees for a defendant’s own incarceration.

“Defendants are expected to pay the cost of incarceration, which occurs only because they do not pay the fees and costs with which they were already burdened,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also contends that the state’s indigent defense system provides incentives for public defenders to close cases quickly, at the expense of taking time to review a client’s ability to pay fines and fees.