A recent analysis by the Tulsa World found that the percentage of bookings into the Tulsa, Oklahoma, County Jail involving warrants for failure to pay court fines and fees has more than tripled since 2004, worsening the jail's growing problem of overcrowding.
In July 2013, failure-to-pay bookings accounted for 29% of the approximately 1,200 prisoners taken into custody. In contrast, of the roughly 1,700 bookings in July 2004, just 8% were solely or in part related to failure-to-pay warrants.
"The cheapest ticket we write is $160," said Tulsa County Undersheriff Tim Albin. "People are struggling. There's not a lot of income. And that has a cascading effect."
The Tulsa jail's capacity is 1,650 prisoners, according to Albin. But during the summer, he said — when the volume of prisoners booked for failure-to-pay warrants peaks — the jail population can balloon to more than 1,800. Combined with failure-to-appear bookings, Albin said such outstanding warrants keep his jail at least two-thirds full by themselves.
Yet, county and municipal court officials insist they are not running a "debtor's jail" system.
Bob Garner, Tulsa's chief prosecutor, said that judges usually work with people to convert portions of their fines to work days, provided they show up for their court dates and explain their financial difficulties. Garner also defended the city's municipal court fees, many of which have increased by at least 30% since 2003, and cited a supposedly lagging economy for those struggling to pay their fines.
Those jailed, Garner said, are mostly to blame for being locked up since many of them "are not people who manage money well anyway."
"Is it any worse than it's ever been?" Garner said. "We just don't have debtor's prisons."
A 2010 report from the American Civil Liberties Union, however, argues otherwise, contending that states — as budget deficits climb — are aggressively pursuing court fines and fees without regard to a defendant's ability to pay in order to finance the criminal justice system "on the backs of the poor."
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