Viewpoint: Function of law is to do justice, and Oklahoma's piling on of fees fails miserably

Many years ago when I was practicing law in southeast Kansas, I was having lunch with an attorney friend. He was a large physically imposing man and was intellectually intimidating. As we finished the meal, he leaned over the table and asked in a firm tone, “Stan, what is the function of law?” I stammered like a first-year law student. He leaned back and smiled warmly and said, “The function of law is to do justice. You and me write letters, open and close files, write memoranda, but how much of our work is doing justice?"

When the justice standard is applied, the Oklahoma practice of piling on fines and fees in criminal court fails miserably. It almost seems as though the system makes rules with an underlying ethos that a violator can be justifiably subjected to whatever power dynamics permit without regard to proportionality. How can court costs, which can be assessed in up to 48 categories, be anything other than a fundraising tool without consideration of justice? Agencies are truly funded on the backs of the poor.

One recipient of the fees is the District Attorneys’ Council. In other words, offenders are forced to fund a group that has lobbied for legislation that increases the severity of consequences, such as fines and fees, for criminal convictions. Clients in our re-entry housing ministry typically have been ordered to pay $6,000-$7,000 in fines and fees. Some owe as much as $15,000.

Clearly prosecutors, courts and law enforcement should be funded. Legislative appropriation is the avenue for this. Fees as a funding tool is not justice.

The Rev. Dr. Stan Basler, director emeritus, Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministries, Oklahoma Conference, United Methodist Church
The Rev. Dr. Stan Basler, director emeritus, Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministries, Oklahoma Conference, United Methodist Church

Justice is not achieved simply because we have a constitution establishing a Legislature that enacts “constitutional” laws with “constitutionally permissible” punishments according to “constitutional rules.” Old Testament Law and Prophets advocated for justice for the poor, the alien, widows and orphans. The biblical standard is holistic and looks at the well-being of all people and whether their basic needs are met. The word is “Shalom,” mutual well-wishing. Fines and fees today place a disproportionate burden on economically poor people for funding public entities. Justice is not the frame of reference.

One day when my attorney friend and I were in criminal court in southeast Kansas, he turned to me and asked, “Do you realize what we are doing in criminal court? We are creating a giant underclass.”

A few years ago, I was working in ministry with an offender who was about to be released from prison but owed fines and fees to Oklahoma City. In spite of my efforts to create a smooth transition and payment plan, she was arrested at the prison gate and taken to jail. She owed Oklahoma City $1,800 in fines and fees. She was confined three weeks in jail. I protested to a local judge and asserted this was not about public safety. He replied that it was. I retorted that had she had $1,800, she would not have gone to jail. How is that about public safety?

It is time to examine our practices in light of the standard: “The function of law is to do justice.”

The Rev. Stan Basler is director emeritus, Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministries, with the Oklahoma Conference, United Methodist Church.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Viewpoint: Court fees as funding tool in Oklahoma is not justice