In the recent discussion about an ordinance banning panhandling in the center medians of streets, assurances were given that Oklahoma City municipal courts do not persecute poor people who cannot pay their fines. Instead, it is said that such people can request a hearing to determine that they are indigent, in which case they will be referred to community service.
I am the founder of the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House in Oklahoma City. We work in food security for low income people. So I know lots of poor people. Since the panhandling issue came up, I have been attempting to find someone who has experienced this mercy from the Oklahoma City court system. Last week I attended an arraignment court session to see how the system works. At the beginning, a representative of the city attorney gave a presentation about what would happen. He mentioned several times that if people needed time to pay their fines, they could simply ask for time and receive it. He never stated that if people were indigent, they could do community service instead of paying a fine. The judge never mentioned it either.
A right that no one knows about is not much of a right. Therefore, I ask that you send me a paragraph about the rights of people in the Oklahoma City Municipal Court system to a hearing to determine if they are able to pay a fine and the procedure for exercising that right. I would like to publicize this right widely among low income communities in Oklahoma City. This paragraph should be read out at every court session where people are entering their pleas and included as a printed statement on their paperwork.
While it may be said that “justice is blind,” in practice we all know that it isn’t and that fines levy injustice as well as punishment.. A $150 fine on someone whose income is above the median for this state is a much different “penalty” than it is for someone who makes minimum wage. For the former, it is simply part of the price of doing business. For the latter, it could mean not enough money to pay rent and thus an eviction leading to homelessness and maybe also time in jail. By the time a payday lender gets through with it, that $150 fine may be $500.
Further –- there is an accumulating body of evidence that indicates that municipal court systems around the United States are making a substantial profit off of the fines and costs paid by poor people. Indeed, this kind of economic persecution for municipal profit was one of the drivers of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri. I am sure we all hope to never see such a situation in Oklahoma City, so if the City isn’t unduly profiting from the legal and economic persecution of poor people, the municipal courts (and the City!) should make a point of ensuring that people know their rights so that they don’t feel trapped in a system that seems designed to grind them into the dust.
I appreciate your assistance in helping ensure that Oklahoma City is not profiting from the persecution of poor people. I don’t anticipate that there will be any problem with this because of the assurances referenced above. Assuming those are true, I eagerly await your response.
Bob Waldrop, Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House
1524 NW 21 Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73106
405-200-8155 + www.justpeace.org
On the Memorial of St. Francis Xavier, December 3, 2015