Ira Wilkins should be a free man. Wilkins has served his time in an Oklahoma prison and is clear for release. But a private court fee collections agency is keeping him behind bars.
Wilkins is the lead plaintiff in a new racketeering lawsuit against the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association, every sheriff’s department in the state, and the court fee collections firm Aberdeen Enterprizes II. When Oklahomans owe court fees, their case is assigned to Aberdeen, which charges them an additional 30 percent on top of what courts want. If they don’t pay, Aberdeen requests a warrant for the debtor’s arrest. It’s big business for Aberdeen and the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association, which received more than $800,000 from Aberdeen in 2015.
Under Aberdeen’s watch, debtors wind up in jail. When an Oklahoman owes court fees, Aberdeen contacts the debtor by phone or mail, informing them of the arrest warrant. The message is clear: Pay or go to jail.
In 2016, “failure to pay” was the fourth most common cause of incarceration in the state, with 1,163 Oklahomans booked into jail, according to the lawsuit. (That’s almost as many as possession of controlled substance, the most common cause of incarceration, with 1,326 people book.) Currently, Oklahoma has approximately 45,000 open “failure to pay” warrants, Daniel Smolen, one of the attorneys representing Wilkins told The Daily Beast.
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