An expanded federal lawsuit challenging Oklahoma’s state debt collection practices is seeking class-action status amidst allegations of extortion.
According to Reveal News, Oklahoma maintains one of the highest prisoner ratios in the entire the United States. More women per capita are locked up than anywhere else in the country. For men, the incarceration rate ranks second.
The suit was initially filed as a challenge to Oklahoma’s austere debt collection practices. Working for the state’s courts and sheriff’s offices, collectors purportedly use manipulative tactics to force residents into parting with large tracts of income.
Last week, attorneys filed a motion to transform the litigation into a class action suit. Two prominent legal groups, writes Reveal, joined the effort, which names 54 county sheriffs, judges, and court officials as plaintiffs.
Behind the collection efforts is Oklahoma debt collection firm Aberdeen Enterprizes II. A private company contracting with the state, Aberdeen works with law enforcement agencies to ‘collect unpaid court fines and fees owed by people charged with traffic offenses, misdemeanors and felonies.’
Among the disturbing charges brought forward in the suit: that Aberdeen effectively orders the arrest of individuals too poor to make timely payments. Debtors are then taken into custody by deputies, denied the opportunity to explain their financial hardships before a judge.
“If an individual explains that she is too poor to pay the lump sum and offers to make periodic payments instead, Aberdeen, Inc., refuses, as a matter of policy, to accept a lesser amount. Aberdeen, Inc., does so because the threat of living under the shadow of an arrest warrant coerces individuals owing debt to sacrifice basic necessities, to beg others for money, and to divert money from means-tested disability payments,” claims the suit.
Along with civil rights violations, lawyers spearheading the litigation say that Aberdeen is running afoul of extortion stipulations contained within the RICO Act – a federal anti-racketeering statute known for its use against organized crime.
Reveal makes mention of the company’s telephone training script, which seems geared toward terror.
“I want to help you get this resolved,” it says. “I would not want you to get picked up on this warrant and not be there for your kids.”
Attorney Dan Smolen, among the lawyers who initiated the suit, said Oklahoma’s practices make a mockery of American values.
“In the United States of America you can’t put people in jail because they’re too poor, and that’s what’s happening here,” he said in November.
And Smolen – who Reveal says has championed cases for the incarcerated before – said Aberdeen’s questionable methods read like tragic literature transplanted into reality.
“I don’t like seeing my state reduced to a bad parody of a Charles Dickens novel,” he said.