Oklahoma collections firm is making sheriffs rich by sending poor people to jail
A woman in handcuffs after being arrested (Shutterstock.com)

An Oklahoma court fees collection agency is jacking up debtors' fees by an additional 30 percent, then working in concert with law enforcement to jail people who can't pay.

According to The Daily Beast, every sheriff's department in the state is affiliated with collection agency Aberdeen Enterprizes [sic] II and sheriffs are getting rich by jailing the poor, creating a situation that amounts to a "modern day debtors prison."

Ira Wilkins is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Oklahoma Sheriff's Association, which The Daily Beast's Kelly Weil said netted more than $800,000 in 2015 from Aberdeen Enterprizes II.

“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,” says the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court last week.

The suit examines the case of a homeless man who was arrested on New Year's Eve 2016 on charges of retail larceny and trespassing. The man -- who is disabled -- was unable to come up with the $150 necessary 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," wrote Weill.

The man was given a notice to sign -- not from the court or an attorney, but from the sheriff's department -- notifying him of his "debt" to Aberdeen.

"Failure to pay" was the fourth most common cause of arrest in Oklahoma in 2016, leading to the arrest of 1,163 Oklahomans going to jail for money owed. The state currently has more than 45,000 open warrants on "failure to pay" charges.

Aberdeen was founded by former bankruptcy attorney Jim Shofner. Shofner was disbarred after pleading guilty in 2001 to helping a client hide more than $100,000 from the IRS.

Shofner spent two years in prison, then founded Aberdeen three years after his release. He now claims to be retired from the company now and has no knowledge of the lawsuit.

“They’ve privatized the process of warrants being issued or recalled. They have given Aberdeen the authority to control that,” said the lawsuit's lead attorney Daniel Smolen. “They have a private incentive to extort as much as they can out of the indigent through threats and intimidation.”

Read the full report here.