Making a person pay for the crimes he or she commits is ingrained in the ethos of our criminal justice system, but there's a difference between restitution and setting a financial trap.
The intent of the former is to deter bad behavior in the future. The latter inevitably ensnares those we should want to help become productive citizens in a debtors' prison — or worse — steer them back toward a life of crime.
In Oklahoma, where most of the funding for state courts comes from costs and fees automatically assessed when a criminal case is filed, the latter is more apt to happen. It is a problem that traps too many Oklahomans in a cycle of poverty, substance abuse and crime.
State Rep. John Talley, R-Stillwater, said he aims to address the issue as it relates to juveniles with House Bill 3205. The measure was sent this week to the Oklahoma Senate after it won unanimous support in Oklahoma House of Representatives.
The measure would leave fines intact. Fines, after all, are intended to be punitive and are set in amounts commensurate with the crime committed.
Fines are imposed only upon conviction, but fees are assessed every time a prosecutor in Oklahoma files a criminal charge in state district court. A judge can dismiss them along with any charges when warranted, but that typically happens only when a defendant's parents can afford a private lawyer, so those families in financial distress are out of luck.
Of course, lawmakers must find the money that would be needed to supplant any revenue lost from fees no longer assessed. We would urge them to make that part of more expansive project to overhaul annual appropriations and funding for the state's judicial branch.
Until then, we are optimistic about the fact HB 3205 has bipartisan support. It is backed by both the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and Oklahoma Policy Institute.
We urge our state senators to give due consideration to this measure.