Bail reform: Living in a different county shouldn’t mean different access to justice

Thousands of Oklahomans who have not been convicted of a crime are locked in county jails across the state because they can’t afford to buy their freedom from a bondsman. How long you stay in jail often depends on where you’re arrested. Last year, the median jail stay for people in Rogers County accused of nonviolent felonies was 183 days for those who didn’t make bail. In Tulsa County, that number was only 33 days in part because of investments in and reforms to the Tulsa County system of pretrial detention. Tulsa’s reforms created more options for people who can’t pay bail to await trial outside of a jail cell.  

Tulsa shouldn’t be an outlier when it comes to positive jail reform. People shouldn’t be jailed for months longer in some counties because of differences in bail policy. Thirteen-thousand Oklahomans are incarcerated in county jails across the state. Most of these people haven’t even had a trial. Even a short jail stay can cost someone their job, housing, and custody of their kids. Locking up people who haven’t been deemed a flight risk or a threat to public safety doesn’t serve taxpayers. Pretrial detention contributes massively to Oklahoma’s expensive incarceration crisis.

Lawmakers can duplicate some of the positive results we’ve seen in Tulsa throughout the state by passing SB 252 and HB 1249. Both bills guarantee a  bail hearing within 48 hours of arrest, and both bills give judges more discretion to lower or eliminate cash bail. Investments in Tulsa’s pre-trial services have also yielded positive results, and policymakers should replicate this model by adopting the Governor’s proposed $10 million investment in county mental health and substance abuse treatment. These policy changes will spread significant bail and pre-trial detention reform state-wide.

The Tulsa bond docket has already shown  success

The Tulsa County jail incarceration rate tripled from 1970 to 2016, and these trends disproportionately affected women and communities of color. These disparities were cited in a federal lawsuit against Tulsa County alleging that the county’s money bail system is unconstitutional. After the suit was filed, judges in Tulsa issued two administrative orders (AO-2018-9 and  AO-2018-10) to address some of the complaints against the court. One of the orders created the new Tulsa bond docket. The docket started in October, and it gives defendants in the Tulsa County Jail a chance to video conference with a judge and have their bail reduced or eliminated if the judge deems that appropriate. This typically happens within 48 hours of arrest.

Thirteen-thousand Oklahomans are incarcerated in county jails across the state. Most of these people haven’t even had a trial. Even a short jail stay can cost someone their job, housing, and custody of their kids.

Nearly 400 people had their bond amounts reduced or waived through bond docket hearings between October 15th and January 31st, according to Stuart Sutherland of the Tulsa County Public Defender’s Office. Partially due to this practice, the average daily bed count in the Tulsa County Jail has declined from 1,739 in September to 1,541 in March of this year, according to jail documents analyzed by Open Justice Oklahoma.

These reforms are positive, but they don’t impact anyone outside of Tulsa County. Legislation like SB 252 and HB 1249, which require a bail hearing within 48 hours of arrest and which increase judges’ discretion to lower or eliminate cash bail, are desperately needed in the rest of Oklahoma.  

Investment in pretrial services will produce long term savings

Holding people who have not been convicted of a crime in our expensive county jails is a poor use of the state’s limited resources. The pre-trial detention of people accused of only nonviolent offenses cost Tulsa County $1.9 million in 2018. These costs are an issue across the state. Nonviolent defendants who had not yet been convicted of any crime spent over 329,000 days in jails across Oklahoma last year, costing our counties approximately $8.9 million. Over-crowding and the lack of adequate staff only increase the stress on our jail system. Resource-starved counties could desperately use the Governor’s proposed county mental health investment to help prevent crime and provide better services to those struggling with addiction.

One of the most effective ways to lower jail cost for counties is lowering the number of individuals detained pretrial. Technology can be a great tool towards this end. Tulsa’s recent investments in technology solutions and better-coordinated services for those awaiting trial have already shown positive results. The county recently won a $50,000 grant to implement Uptrust, a two-way based communication app that provides court date reminders. Proponents of cash bail often argue that expensive bail is the best way to ensure defendants show up to court. However, many Oklahomans simply need a phone reminder or assistance with transportation to make it to their court dates on time. Holding someone in jail pre-trial with a bond amount they can’t pay is an inefficient and overly costly way to guarantee their court appearance if a smartphone app and a text message could achieve the same result. The app has reduced failure-to-appear rates by 75 percent in multiple jurisdictions, according to materials provided by the creators of Uptrust.

Family and Children’s Services uses this app to connect justice-involved clients in Tulsa to social services. These types of interventions – which promote employment, housing, transportation, and mental health and substance abuse treatment – have a proven positive impact on the accused. These reforms decrease the likelihood of re-offense and can dramatically lower the cost of incarceration on the county jail system long-term.

Tulsa County bail reform’s success signals a need to reform bail across the state

Lawmakers should support SB 252 and HB 1249 as well as the governor’s proposed $10 million investment in county mental health and substance abuse services. These types of reform have lowered the cost of pretrial detention in Tulsa County, and they should be built upon and scaled to create a uniform pretrial process across the state. Every Oklahoman deserves a system of equal justice where money doesn’t determine your jail stay and where the presumption of innocence truly matters.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Damion joined Oklahoma Policy Institute in July of 2018 as the criminal justice policy analyst. He grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and has lived in Oklahoma since the late 90s. Prior to joining OK Policy, he was an educator at Jenks Public Schools and the Oklahoma School for the Performing Arts. He’s written education and justice features as a contributing writer for the Tulsa Voice since 2016, and he was awarded best Education and General News Reporting features by the Society for Professional Journalists in 2017. Damion earned a Bachelor’s Degree from Oral Roberts University and started several voter registration and political advocacy initiatives during his time on campus. He lives in Tulsa with his wife Rachel.

One thought on “Bail reform: Living in a different county shouldn’t mean different access to justice

  1. Tulsa county use to have the a pretrial release project started back in the late 60s early 70s… In deed a great and effective program for the poor first offenders.
    Think later the name was changed and its office location was moved inside the court house. It was a noble and much need program..

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