Oklahoma has long been one of the harshest states when it comes to criminal sentencing, but over the past year, the Sooner State has made criminal justice reform a top priority. The state legislature passed reforms to mandatory minimum sentencing, increased the dollar amount at which property crimes become felonies, and expanded alternatives to incarceration, measures that Governor Mary Fallin signed into law. Yet as Ryan Gentzler recently highlighted in The Oklahoman, there is room for improvement.
Unfortunately, the state also enacted new laws that give prosecutors more discretion and greatly increase fines and fees for some offenses. Gentzler notes that since 80 percent of all criminal defendants are poor, a great many of them end up being arrested and incarcerated because they are unable to pay those fines and fees.
According to Gentzler, Oklahoma courts are incentivized to do this: They rely heavily on revenues from fees and fines as a result of general appropriations to the court system being limited and in decline. Furthermore, bills meant to reform the fee system died during the legislative session as a result of a budget shortfall.
Ultimately, Oklahoma needs to reform its fee system so that, as Gentzler writes, indigent defendants “who have made mistakes are not locked into poverty.”