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.
But while Aberdeen and the OSA strike it rich, poor Oklahomans are languishing in modern day debtors prison, the lawsuit alleges.
“These plaintiffs are victims of an extortion scheme in which the Defendants have conspired to extract as much money as possible from indigent people through a pattern of illegal and unconscionable behavior,” the suit filed last week in federal court alleges.
Court fees add up quickly in Oklahoma, and quicker when Aberdeen is on the case.
The lawsuit cites the case of an unnamed homeless man who was arrested on retail larceny and trespassing charges on New Year’s Eve 2016. The man, who is on disability payments, claims he didn’t have the $150 he needed to bond out of jail. When he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors, he was slapped with $425 in fines and fees, plus $385 in “hidden costs.” The sum came out to over $800—more than the man’s monthly disability earnings. Then the man’s money troubles got worse. His case was handed to Aberdeen, which increases all debts by 30 percent.
“Plaintiff was given a letter to sign, not by the court or an attorney, but by a sheriff’s officer at the jail acknowledging his ‘debt’ to Aberdeen,” the lawsuit reads.