Generally, a misdemeanor conviction is punishable by less than one year or 365 days in a county jail. In Oklahoma, a misdemeanor conviction is subject to a year in the county jail and a maximum fine of $500.00. However, the cost of being convicted of a misdemeanor in Oklahoma increases drastically when the costs and fees charged to a defendant are considered. In most cases, fees are intended to shift the costs of the criminal justice system from the taxpayer to the defendant. Historically, as the State of Oklahoma experienced budget gaps or added unfunded agency programs, it shifted more court costs and fees to the defendant to avoid appropriating tax dollars. These fees cover almost every part of the criminal justice process and include anything from court-appointed attorney fees, court clerk fees, late fees, installment fees, and supervision fees, to jury fees and various other kinds of administration fees. For example, the average cost of fees assessed to a misdemeanor drug defendant in Oklahoma is $850.00, in addition to any fine assessed. These fees range from a fee for the Trauma Care Assistance Revolving Fund to the Court Clerk’s Administrative Fee on Collections. Although criminal defendants are burdened with the funding of courts and government agencies, it is estimated that 70% of this criminal debt goes unpaid each year because poor people simply do not have the money.
The 2nd Annual Criminal Justice Reform Seminar was an online webinar focused on how exorbitant fines and costs assessments, particularly in the sentencing of misdemeanor defendants, keeps individuals trapped in the criminal justice system and creates a downward spiral of collateral consequences. Focus was also on the reform needed to change the impact of assessing fines and costs in sentencing, particularly misdemeanor sentencings. We discussed how poor people become trapped in the criminal justice system when they are unable to pay the fines and costs assessed against them.
The keynote speaker was Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Tony Messenger, a columnist with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In 2019, Mr. Messenger won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for his series of columns on debtors’ prisons in the state of Missouri. In 2016, he was awarded a Missouri Honor Medal, the highest award bestowed by the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. That same year he won a National Headliner for editorial writing. In 2015, Mr. Messenger was a Pulitzer finalist for his series of editorials on the city of Ferguson, Missouri and won the Sigma Delta Chi award for best editorials of the year, given by the Society of Professional Journalists. His first book, “Profit and Punishment: How America Criminalizes the Poor in the Name of Poverty,” is currently pending publication by St. Martin’s Press and is due to be released in late 2021.