Shadow Sentences: Ex-offenders shackled with debt that may last a lifetime

    A Special Report: Shadow Sentences: Ex-offenders shackled with debt that may last a lifetime (KOKH)<p>{/p}

    You do the crime; you do the time, or so the adage goes but advocates for criminal justice reform argue Oklahoma has moved from punishing crimes to criminalizing being poor. At worst, critics of the system argue Oklahoma is causing more crime than its solving.

    Due to years of budget cuts to the court systems and prosecutors, the criminal justice system is largely funded by fees and fines collected from people who participate in the system.

    “The irony is if we say, ‘why shouldn't they pay for the crime they committed;’ they can't afford to do it and when we set a person up for failure it only adds to our incarceration rates,” said Kris Steele the executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. “It destroys families, it hinders our workforce and it sets us back as a state; it doesn't do anything to advance public safety or reduce crime.”

    Steele is also the former Speaker of the Oklahoma House where he championed Oklahoma’s first attempts at reforming the criminal justice system. A growing concern among Steele and other advocates is when people get released from prison they are saddled with debt in the forms of fees and fines.

    Take, for example, the story of Colleen Johnson. She was arrested after police were called to investigate a complaint her, then, boyfriend was abusing her. When police found drug residue and paraphernalia in the home, she was arrested and charged with a felony. She received a ten-year sentence for claiming the drug residue was hers, her boyfriend was sentenced to just one year. After missing an appearance in drug court, Johnson was sent to prison, with an extra two years for ‘bail-jumping’ added to her sentence.

    If the same crime happened today, it would be a misdemeanor and Johnson likely would have never been sent to prison. She was released last year as part of a mass commutation as the state works to turn around its incarceration rates.

    “I now have fines, a lot of fines,” Johnson explained to FOX 25, “I have $12,000 worth of fines now and I’ll be 72, is what I figured up, is when I finish my fines.”

    An anonymous donor provided funding for Johnson and others to pay the one-time fee needed just to get their driver’s license back. However, there is an added catch. Even after paying hundreds of dollars to get a license back, if you fail to pay court fines your driver’s license could be revoked.

    If someone loses their license to drive for missing court payments, they could lose the ability to hold down a job which would take away their ability to pay court fines and fees. If they still drive without a license to keep a job, they risk getting caught and sent to jail where they would pick up more fees and fines.

    “We should not penalize or punish people for being poor and yet that's what our system continually does,” Steele explained.

    The fear of missing a payment is real. Even though she has a full-time job right now, Johnson is just making $8 an hour; half of each paycheck goes to paying off her court debt. She is surviving now with the help of transitional housing and her church. Holding everything together is a continual prayer.

    “Lord, I don't know how to do this. I don't know how I'm going to do it,” Johnson said of her prayers. “How am I going to walk through this, because it is frightening. It is frightening to think ‘man if I miss one payment I'm going back to prison.’”

    Steele said the cost of fines and fees may drive some former inmates to commit other crimes to get by or pay off their debt. Other people will leave town or just skip out on the debt altogether, which leads to active warrants for their arrest and sometimes forces them to live on the fringes of society. Neither of these solutions improves public safety Steele said.

    One solution, according to Steele, would be to provide ex-offenders incentives upon their release. For instance, a promise to cancel some of their debt for each period of good behavior. He believes doing so would provide hope to those trying to do right and would result in more people paying off more of their debt, which would actually bring in more money for the court system.

    The challenge, Steele said, is changing the way we think about the criminal justice system and those who find themselves entangled in that system.

    “The reality is there is no such thing as a spare Oklahoman,” Steele said, “And our community is, at its best, when everyone is able to contribute to the greater good.”

    “All I can do is what I can do,” Johnson said of how she survives. “I can't stress out about it; I just got to hope for the best and keep working.”

    She said she tells anyone in a similar situation to just keep working and praying. She said she understands she made mistakes in life, but believes lengthy prison sentences are doing more harm than good. It is something voters agreed with when they passed landmark criminal justice measures.

    Until something changes, Johnson will continue to serve her shadow sentence, in hopes that someday she will be able to buy back her freedom.

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