Kris Steele
Kris Steele speaks on Thursday, March 10, 2016, at Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

In the early morning hours of June 8, 1978, three men, two of whom had recently been released from prison, broke into a Muskogee woman’s home, bound and gagged her and repeatedly sexually assaulting her and her 11-year-old son before stealing her car.

One of the three men was killed later that night in a separate incident, but the other two were arrested and later sentenced to 60 and 99 years in prison, respectively.

Meanwhile, the woman who had been attacked was charged $80 to pay for a sexual assault examination, was required to pay a towing and storage fee to recover her stolen car and more than $3,000 in counseling and rehabilitative services for her son, who had attempted suicide the week after the attack.

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“During my years in the ‘criminal injustice system,’ it has become obvious that we have stepped over the body of the victim to preoccupy ourselves with the rights of the suspect,” then Muskogee County District Attorney Mike Turpin wrote in the Winter 1981 edition of the Tulsa Law Review, where he recounted the woman’s story.

However, Turpin states that he was encouraged by the recent passage of a package of new victim’s rights laws by the Oklahoma Legislature that had been endorsed by the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association (of which Turpin was president,) law enforcement, citizens and then-Gov. George Nigh.

Two components of that package of laws established a victim-witness coordinator position in counties with a population of more than 60,000 and created the Oklahoma Victim’s Compensation Fund.

“The unique feature of the Oklahoma Bill is that it provides for the existence of a self-sustaining fund comprised of victim compensation assessments levied against convicted misdemeanants and felons,” Turpin wrote.

But 38 years after the creation of the Victims Compensation Program, decreasing collections and increasing momentum on efforts to reduce the state’s court fees and costs have caused some officials to issue warnings about the future and stability of the Oklahoma Victims Compensation Program.

“For the first time in Oklahoma Crime Victims Compensation history, the fund is in trouble,” a December 2017 report by the state program to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime advised. “Legislative action will be needed very soon to put measures in place to preserve the Victims Compensation Fund. Criminal Justice Reform is resulting in lower assessments being collected and money being diverted away from victims to other programs using offender fees.”

Between Fiscal Year 2016 and Fiscal Year 2018, the program’s main source of revenue, a special criminal court assessment, has seen a drop of around 16 percent, the program’s annual reports show.

Collections

Collections of the victims of crime assessment court fee since Fiscal Year 2009. Courtesy/OKLAHOMA VICTIMS COMPENSATION PROGRAM

The Legislature and Governor’s Office are now considering a number of criminal justice reform measures and are awaiting a task force report later this year analyzing the fines, fees and court costs assessed on those in the criminal justice system is worrying to some who work in the victim’s compensation process.

Advocates of reducing the financial burden placed by the current schedule of court fines, fees and costs, however, said they hope to see changes to how the state’s victim’s compensation program is funded by requiring the Legislature to fund it through general appropriations.

Victims compensation and criminal justice reform

The Oklahoma Victims Compensation Program is administered by the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council, and overseen by a three-member board appointed by the governor.

In Fiscal Year 2018, the program brought in around 7.5 million and paid out about $5.2 million to victims of violent crime and about $1 million for sexual assault forensic examinations. The money from the program goes toward victims of violent crime who qualify for reimbursement related to expenses incurred because of a crime.

Most of the money for the program comes from a special court fee known as a victim’s compensation assessment, while a federal Victims of Crime Act grant accounted for about $2 million deposited in Fiscal Year 2018. The rest came from court-ordered restitution and interest on inmate savings accounts, the program’s annual report states.

Revenue from the court assessment peaked in fiscal year 2012, when $4.7 million was deposited into the fund. However, in fiscal year 2017, the fund saw a drop in deposits from the court fee of about $700,000, followed in fiscal year 2018 by a drop of a little less than $300,000. The total deposited in fiscal year 2018 from the court assessment was just short of $3.8 million.

History since Fiscal Year 1993
Victims of crime court fee collection history since Fiscal Year 1993, with events impacting collections. Courtesy/OKLAHOMA VICTIMS COMPENSATION PROGRAM

When the law creating the Oklahoma Victims Compensation Program was passed in 1981, it required a special fee to be paid by the defendant in criminal cases and was the first of its kind in Oklahoma — a fee charged by the court that went to a function of the executive branch.

“Years ago, when it first started, it used to be offenders were only paying court costs and VCA (victims compensation assessments),” Breedlove said. “There weren’t any other fees or costs. Of course, since that time that list has grown.”

The victim’s compensation assessment amount charged to an offender who is found guilty or has a deferred prosecution varies, but generally victim’s compensation assessments on misdemeanors range between $30 and $300, $45 to $1,000 for non-injurious felonies and $50 up to $10,000 for injurious felonies.

And that, Breedlove said, is the basis for concern that a criminal justice measure approved by voters in 2016, State Question 780, might impact the victim’s compensation fund.

Because felony convictions require a higher victims compensation assessment on offenders than misdemeanors, the changes made by State Question 780 — lowering drug possession cases from felonies to misdemeanors and increasing the dollar threshold for certain property crimes to be a felony — would decrease the amount of fees collected and negatively impact the fund, Breedlove said.

Evidence shows that the passage of State Question 780 stopped a 10-year-long increase in felony filings in Oklahoma.

However, because the new law did not go into effect until July 2017 and given the lag between when a court fee is assessed and when it is paid, Breedlove said the victims compensation system has yet to feel the full effect of the change.

“I can’t say it’s had a significant impact we’ve felt quite yet,” Breedlove said. “We may not feel that for a couple of years. I think it remains to be seen what impact it’s going to have on this fund.”

Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform — the group that advocated passage of State Question 780, said the goal of the measure was to provide treatment to low-level offenders, rather than prison time.

“It’s important to note the reforms contained in 780 apply to simple possession and low-level property crime,” Steele said. “These are non-violent low-level offenses. The premise behind State Question 780 is to treat the people who battle addiction as a patient, not a prisoner.”

Breedlove said the current push by lawmakers and the governor’s office to reduce or do away with fees and costs assessed on those in the criminal justice system is a cause for concern about the future of the program.

“We are really very concerned about the future of the fund because I know there’s a desire to reduce those fees and fines offenders are paying,” said Breedlove, who sits on the task force that is examining offender fines, fees and costs. “I really hope these payments that go to assist victims are not cut out.”

Between 1992 and 2015, when voters approved a measure that curtailed the Legislature’s power to raise taxes, more than 40 separate fees were added by the Legislature to criminal court cases to help fund the state’s judiciary, though many of those fees also go to executive branch agencies. And more have been added since then.

Steele said he and his group are supporting efforts to reduce the amount of fines, fees and costs that offenders are charged. The idea, he said, is not to reduce the amount of money going to reimburse victims of crime, but to reduce the number of crime victims.

“Ultimately, our goal is to create a system and advance reforms that will not drive a person deeper into the criminal justice system,” Steele said. “Our goal is to avoid more crime so there will be less victims.”

Steele said he and Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform hope that the Victim’s Compensation Program, as well as other functions of the criminal justice system, are funded through legislative appropriations, rather than fees charged by the courts.

“We are very aware and sensitive and empathetic to the needs of victims in the state of Oklahoma,” Steele said. “We support the movement within the Legislature and Governor’s Office to reduce the amount of fees and fines levied on low-level offenders and begin to properly fund our criminal justice system, including our victim’s impact fund, through general appropriations.”

Breedlove said her office is examining other potential sources of revenue to keep the system afloat, including appropriations by the Legislature or requesting that victims compensation assessments be added to speeding tickets.

“There are other things we could look at to maybe generate revenue,” Breedlove said. “That’s not something we’ve had to do because all these years we’ve been able to balance the (paid out) funds with these assessments. But we may in the future have to look at those alternatives.”

The Frontier is a nonprofit focusing on investigative and watchdog journalism. For more information or to donate, go to www.readfrontier.org.

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