Oklahoma City is doing what it can to have people convicted of minor offenses bear the brunt of the cost for their brief jail stays.
And so far, it has eased the burden on city tax dollars by nearly $3 million over the past six years.
Oklahoma City's jail stay cost-recovery program has netted about $2.9 million since it went into effect in 2006, according to city records.
The city collected about $360,000 in the fiscal year that ended June 30.
“We've been collecting somewhere between $350,000 and half a million (dollars) every year,” said Stacey Davis, the city's municipal courts administrator.
The program adds a $117 fee to the court costs of people who are later convicted of a municipal crime to pay for the cost of a one-day jail stay.
Most people who are cited or arrested on a city violation or crime don't go to jail, even if convicted. But some offenses, particularly ones involving intoxication like drunken driving or violence like a fight, result in at least a short trip to jail before the case is adjudicated.
By charging the fee to those people who spend time in jail and are later convicted, it allows the city to draw fewer dollars from tax sources and from fines and fees paid for by violators who didn't have to go to jail.
“The guy who never went to jail doesn't have to pay for the guy who did go to jail,” Davis said.
The fee is the approximate cost of booking someone into jail, housing them there for up to a day, and releasing them, he said. Most people taken to jail on suspicion of committing a municipal offense spend less than 24 hours in jail even if they can't afford bail money, and many are out in less than 10 hours.
The majority of people charged the fee don't pay. For example, only about 3,000 of the roughly 16,300 people charged last fiscal year have paid for their jail stay so far, according to city records.
“We never really expected that we would be able to collect all of it,” Davis said.
“Some of these people don't even have a house, or they don't have any money, or they don't live here, or whatever.”
The city can seek the money as a civil or criminal debt. It can be subject to a tax lien, and negatively affect a credit score. But one method the city won't use to collect the money or penalize those who can't pay is arresting them again just for the unpaid fine.
“What we really don't want to do is create a new $117 fee by arresting you today for not paying your $117 (fine) that you got last month,” Davis said. “That's just not palatable to anybody. Nobody thinks that's fair for just piling that on.”