Prisoners of Debt
This is the sixth in a series of stories reported jointly by Epic Text Books and KGOU Radio. The latest segments from KGOU reporter Kate Carlton Greer can be found at

When offenders leave prison to re-enter society, one of the steepest barriers they face is finding a job.

Then they encounter a second barrier: paying hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees to reinstate a driver’s license so they can look for and keep a job.

Oklahomans who lose a driver’s license because of failing to pay a traffic fine or appear in court on the matter may have to pay several hundred dollars to restore the license.

Those incarcerated for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or a felony involving a vehicle, often must pay several thousand dollars to regain their license. That’s on top of court costs and fines related to their offenses. Reinstating a license can take months or years, depending on the length of suspension or revocation.

State Sen. Josh Brecheen, R-Coalgate, was one of the authors of a 2013 law aimed at lowering costs to reinstate driver’s licenses. Brecheen said reinstatement costs are so high they create a barrier to an inmate reintegrating into society.

“They (offenders) have to have met every metric so they’re not a public safety risk to get behind the wheel, according to the Department of Public Safety, and the only thing between them and driving is the exorbitant cost,” Brecheen said.

Stephen Krise, general counsel for DPS, explained that the fines, fees and other costs that offenders face after being released from prison or jail are used by agencies and the organizations for public safety. He cited the trauma care fund, which helps cover uncompensated care for hospitals and ambulance services.

“It’s up to the Legislature to dictate those fees and where they go,” Krise said.

Loretta Denman, director of state programs for the Oklahoma Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), said while her organization is unaware of the fee structure associated with DUIs, it strongly backs laws against the crime. She said MADD supports the use of ignition interlock devices, which lower the chances that a recovering alcoholic will re-offend.

“They’re proven to save lives,” she said.

A Stack of Fees

Former jail inmate John Atkinson, 26, has no driver’s license. But he said he’s lucky. He has parents, friends and a girlfriend who are willing to give him rides, including to and from work.

Still, “I’m a pretty self-reliant person,” Atkinson said. “I don’t like having to get people to give me rides. There’s a certain amount of guilt in that.”

A recovering heroin addict, Atkinson was convicted in 2014 on charges stemming from a single traffic stop. He was convicted of possession of drugs, weapons and drug paraphernalia and for driving under the influence. The last charge resulted from his not submitting to a blood test during his arrest, Atkinson said. As an addict, he said, he had been afraid they would detect the opiates in his blood.

After a year in the Oklahoma County Jail, Atkinson said he cleaned up. He was offered a job as a cook at a friend’s restaurant and temporary housing at a non-profit ministry in east Oklahoma City that assists former inmates.

His wages are barely above minimum wage, so his $500 monthly rent is steep. Just as daunting are his court fees, fines and costs associated with reinstating his driver’s license.

“In Oklahoma City, everything is so spread out, you can’t survive without a car unless you can get someone to give you a ride,” he said.

John Atkinson checks on the cost of restoring his drivers license at an Oklahoma Department of Public Safety office in Oklahoma City.
John Atkinson checks on the cost of restoring his drivers license at an Oklahoma Department of Public Safety office in Oklahoma City.

To restore his license, Atkinson must pay the following fees:

* $340 for reinstatement of the license, revoked because of the DUI.
* $375 for reinstatement of his license, suspended because of failure to appear on an outstanding municipal ticket for driving without insurance, incurred before the DUI arrest.
* $160 for a drug and alcohol assessment.
* $290 on each of two convictions of felony possession of drugs while operating a motor vehicle.
* $150 to $360 for a required DUI course.
* $75 per month for an ignition interlock device, which prevents the car from starting if alcohol is detected on the driver’s breath. The payments will last 18 months, totaling $1,350.

In all, Atkinson will owe about $3,000 to fully reinstate his license.

Other Costs

Additionally, Atkinson must continue to pay a monthly district attorney assessment of $40 a month for 24 months, totaling $960. His court costs and fines will add about $2,000, bringing the overall total to more than $6,000.

The interlock requirement bewilders Atkinson. He was a heroin addict, he said, not an alcoholic, and insists he was not drinking the night he was arrested. His refusal of the blood test triggered the requirement.

“If they had a breathalyzer device that detected heroin in my system, OK. But I’ve never had a drinking charge. I don’t drink. I was a drug addict. I wasn’t a drinker. But they’re wanting to put a device in my car that all it does is tell if I’ve been drinking or not. I don’t understand that,” Atkinson said.

Krise said the law requiring the device was designed that way.

“That’s how the statute was written,” Krise said. “It doesn’t make a distinction (between driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol).”

John Hunsucker, an Oklahoma City DUI attorney, said the $75 “rental fee” is actually a workaround for a state law that caps certain monthly interlock-device fees.

“When the Legislature passed the law on the interlock, they were told they (offenders) would only be charged a $25-a-month maintenance fee,” Hunsucker said. “Well, they don’t charge a maintenance fee — they charge a rental fee.”

Hunsucker said the high costs of reinstating a license often push offenders to re-offend, in that they drive without a valid license.

“They (offenders) dig a hole they can’t get out of, basically,” Hunsucker said. “A lot of them can’t afford to get their license back. If they get a driving under suspension, that causes a further license suspension, plus more fines and fees … a revolving door at that point.”

Robin Wertz said she was “one day away” from selling drugs for to pay her fines when she got a call offering her a job.
Robin Wertz said she was “one day away” from selling drugs for to pay her fines when she got a call offering her a job.

‘Provisional License’

In 2013, Brecheen and Rep. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa, co-authored a bill that would allow those with suspended or revoked licenses to get a “provisional license” for $25 per month.

The license allows its holder to drive to a place of employment, religious service, court-ordered treatment or other limited locations. The money paid is applied toward outstanding costs owed by the offender.

Krise, the public safety counsel, said about 250 provisional licenses have been issued since Nov. 1, 2013, when the law took effect, adding that not many offenders know about the program yet.

Robin Wertz, a case manager at Oklahoma City’s Exodus House, a charitable residence home for released inmates, said one of the first things the charity does for offenders is help them get their driver’s licenses back. But it’s an expensive and lengthy process, she said. Finding a job or paying for necessities often trumps the risk of getting caught driving with a revoked license, despite house rules against driving without a license.

“How long is it going to take you save that and pay rent, and pay utilities, and food and everything else?” Wertz said. “So they just get a car and drive without it.”

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