BARTLESVILLE, OK – Today, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Latham & Watkins LLP, and Bryan & Terrill, PLLC filed a lawsuit challenging unlawful and unconstitutional jailing of indigent individuals for nonpayment of court-imposed fines and fees without consideration of their ability to pay. The complaint seeks declaratory and injunctive relief.
“The poorest people in Washington County, Oklahoma are routinely subjected to court-imposed fines and fees that they are simply unable to pay, keeping them unlawfully entangled in the criminal justice system,” said Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “We filed this lawsuit to bring an end to a modern-day debtors’ prison that jails poor people at every turn. Our experience shows that debtors’ prisons have contributed to escalating incarceration rates in Oklahoma, a state which now has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Our clients have been unconstitutionally and illegally punished, and through this lawsuit we seek to bring them long, overdue relief.”
The lawsuit, filed in the District Court of Washington County, alleges that Judge Jared Sigler and former Judge Curtis DeLapp violated the Fourteenth Amendment and Oklahoma law when they incarcerated indigent individuals for non-payment of court-imposed fines and fees without consideration of their ability to pay. Additionally, the lawsuit alleges that these judges, as well as Judge John Gerkin, routinely ordered individuals to pay fines and fees without adequate consideration of their ability to pay, as required by Oklahoma state law. The lawsuit also challenges actions taken by the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System (“OIDS”), the OIDS Board of Directors, and OIDS Director Craig Sutter in executing public defender contracts that include a powerful financial incentive for court appointed attorneys to close cases as quickly as possible, rather than demanding ability to pay hearings, thereby creating a conflict of interest that deprives defendants of their Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
“The manner in which Oklahoma operates its criminal justice system is unconstitutional. It disproportionately affects the most vulnerable members of communities and prevents them from achieving meaningful rehabilitation or reentry into society,” said Michael Lacovara of Latham & Watkins LLP. “We are proud to join the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in the fight to help our Plaintiffs obtain redress.”
The Lawyers’ Committee and co-counsel contend that the Washington County judicial defendants systematically failed to conduct an inquiry into criminal defendants’ ability to pay either before imposing fines and fees at sentencing, or before sanctioning indigent defendants for non-payment—including by incarceration.
“This litigation is personal to all Oklahomans because there is no justice in a system that depends on fines and fees imposed against our friends and family least capable of paying them,” said Spencer Bryan of Bryan & Terrill, PLLC.
Oklahoma has long held the distinction of incarcerating women at a rate greater than any other state. Eighty-five percent of these women are mothers. “Coercive collection of court fines and fees against mothers endangers entire families,” said Clarke. “Mothers lose the ability to care for their children when they are incarcerated for failure to pay. They are forced to pull from limited household resources to pay court debt, depriving themselves and their families of basic necessities.”
Plaintiff Sharonica Carter, who was first incarcerated for nonpayment of fines and fees at age 18 and is now 23, expressed hope that she could truly move forward without the threat of jailing for court debt she cannot afford to pay. “I’ve been dealing with this half of my life. I haven’t been able to start my life.” For more information, please visit https://lawyerscommitee.org.