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Okla. Accused Of Running Unconstitutional Debtors' Prisons

By Kevin Penton | March 24, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

The idea of a debtors’ prison conjures grainy images of another time and place, when poor people could be thrown in jail to do time simply because they owed money.

Three individuals in Oklahoma who say they are struggling to put food on the table for their families and maintain a roof over their heads alleged Thursday that their state has effectively revived the practice of debtors’ prisons — incarcerating them because they have failed to keep up with thousands of dollars in fines and fees that they each owe Oklahoma courts.

The individuals — Sharonica Carter, and Amanda and Lonnie Feenstra — contend that current and former county judges, the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, and related state officials have violated the U.S. Constitution, the Oklahoma Constitution and various state laws by throwing in jail those who fail to keep up with the fees and fines imposed by the state’s court system, according to the complaint they filed with Washington County, Oklahoma, court.

“The manner in which Oklahoma operates its criminal justice system is unconstitutional,” said Michael Lacovara, a Latham & Watkins LLP attorney among those representing the individuals, in a statement. “It disproportionately affects the most vulnerable members of communities and prevents them from achieving meaningful rehabilitation or reentry into society.”

The Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment are there in part to prevent individuals from being arrested, detained or jailed simply because they can’t pay a court-imposed fine or restitution, contend the individuals in their complaint, which was filed by attorneys with Latham, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and Bryan & Terrill PLLC.

Yet the judicial system in Oklahoma — which the individuals contend is funded “almost entirely” by fees and fines imposed on defendants, many of whom are poor — frequently fails to determine beforehand whether criminal defendants actually are able to pay the fees and fines, according to the complaint. Once criminal defendants fall behind on their financial debt to the system, either more fines get tacked on or they get thrown in jail, the individuals contend.

“Because the judicial defendants fail to conduct meaningful ability-to-pay inquiries, in violation of constitutional and statutory mandates, the poorest Oklahomans, including plaintiffs, are trapped in an unconstitutional cycle of inescapable debt and incarceration,” the complaint said.

Carter, 23, contends that a county judge ordered her more than seven years ago to pay over $2,700 in fines and fees, when she was 16 and pled no contest to a youthful offender charge, according to the complaint.

Since her release from a juvenile correctional facility in October 2013, she has been incarcerated at least twice for failing to keep up with her debt, which has since ballooned to over $5,000, according to Thursday’s filing.

Fellow plaintiff Amanda Feenstra, 33, is the mother of six children who contends she works at least 60 hours a week as a waitress to keep up with her bills. Assessed with over $3,000 in fines and costs in April 2015 following her guilty plea to identity theft and related charges, she has been incarcerated since then for failing to keep up with the payments, which are currently nearly $11,800, according to the complaint.

“The debt Mrs. Feenstra owes is crippling and she remains — despite her own Herculean efforts to work and provide for herself and her family — in imminent danger of incarceration for failure to pay,” the complaint said.

Feenstra’s husband, Lonnie Feenstra, 36, contends that he has physical and psychological disabilities that keep him from being able to work, complicating his ability to repay the approximately $2,500 he owes following his April 2016 guilty plea for misdemeanor traffic charges, according to the complaint.

Now, the individuals are hoping a judge will find that the state judicial system’s conduct is unlawful and throw out the fees and fines they owe, according to the complaint.

Officials with Washington County District Court and the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, a state agency that provides defense services to poor criminal defendants, could not be reached for comment on Friday.

--Editing by Pamela Wilkinson.

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