The Cost Trap: How Excessive Fees Lock Oklahomans Into the Criminal Justice System Without Boosting State Revenue


In 2015, there were 1,052 bookings for failure to pay or failure to appear in Oklahoma County; those booked stayed an average of 33 days in jail.

Oklahoma’s court system imposes fees for every type of case, and over the last two decades, those fees have grown enormously in both size and amount. Fees assessed on Oklahomans who enter the justice system have become a source of revenue for state agencies, entangling poor defendants in a cycle of poverty and punishment when they are unable to pay. Although 80 percent of District Courts’ funding is generated from fines and fees, more revenue is collected from civil cases than criminal cases. This report details the growth of fines and fees from 1992 to 2015, the consequences of the inability to pay court debt, government reliance on fines and fee revenue, and recommendations to combat these problems. Researchers found defendants often accumulate thousands of dollars of debt that they will likely never be able to pay off and, as a result, can be jailed and stripped of their driver’s licenses. The Oklahoma Policy Institute recommends reducing the financial burdens on poor defendants and improving administrative infrastructure to improve collection and boost revenue. 

You can read the full text here

Key Findings:

  • A misdemeanor DUI case costs defendants 2.5 times more in 2015 than in 1992, an increase from $607 to $1,528. 
  • Oklahoma County imposes incarceration costs of $32 per day; a defendant that spends 92 days in jail would be charged almost $3,000.
  • Sequoyah County averages 150 defendants on the cost docket each week.
  • In 2015, District courts collected $56 million from the Judicial Fund but only $8.6 million from the General Revenue appropriations.
  • General Revenue made up less than 5 percent of appropriations to the District Courts in FY 2016, down from a high of 44 percent in FY 2003.
  • The Oklahoma Legislature raised $8.7 million for the Trauma Care Fund by adding additional court fees in 2004.
  • Between 2003 and 2015, collection from civil cases nearly doubled, but collections from criminal cases remained almost unchanged.


  • Lawmakers should provide guidance for the proper implementation of Rule 8 proceedings.
  • Courts should implement court debt forgiveness and amnesty programs.
  • End debtor’s prisons and driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay fines and fees.
Ryan Gentzler
Oklahoma Policy Institute