Oklahomans who are arrested for nonviolent offenses often spend several weeks in local and county jails because they’re unable to afford to post money bond, incurring steep costs with little benefit to public safety. A new study of court records by Open Justice Oklahoma finds that the harmful effects of money bail are felt across the state, though differing policies across counties create deep disparities in the likelihood and length of pretrial detentions.
Oklahoma, like most other states, relies on a system of money bail for pretrial release. People who are arrested and accused of a crime generally must put down a substantial sum of money with the court or, far more commonly, pay a bail bond agent a nonrefundable fee of 10 percent in order to be released from jail. Money bail is meant to put a steep cost on people who fail to show up for their court dates.
In practice, Oklahoma’s money bail system drains millions of dollars from vulnerable communities through bail bond fees and causes unnecessary incarceration of low-risk defendants. Those who cannot afford to post bond can sit in jail for weeks or months despite not having been convicted of a crime, incurring steep costs to county and municipal governments.
Open Justice Oklahoma’s analysis of court records shows several important findings:
- Money bail amounts vary dramatically from county to county. The median bond amount for people accused of nonviolent misdemeanors varies from a low of $800 in Ellis County to a high of $2,500 in Canadian County. Bond amounts for nonviolent felonies ranged from a low of $4,000 in Tulsa County to a high of $10,000 in Logan, Ellis, and Pushmataha Counties.
- Money bail drains wealth from our most vulnerable communities. Bail bond agents typically charge a nonrefundable fee of 10 percent (anywhere from $50 to $5,000 or more, depending on several factors) to secure a person’s bond. These bond fees take millions of dollars from Oklahomans accused of crimes each year, even if their charges are dismissed or they are found not guilty.
- Many people accused of minor, nonviolent misdemeanor infractions remain in jail until their case is resolved because they can’t afford to bond out. One in four nonviolent misdemeanor defendants in Pushmataha and Logan Counties remains in jail until their case is disposed. Nearly half of defendants accused of nonviolent offenses in Tulsa County, as well as over a third of such defendants in three other counties, remain in jail until the disposition of their cases.
- Defendants who cannot post bond spend weeks or months in jail even though they haven’t been convicted. People accused of nonviolent misdemeanor offenses spend 2 to 6 weeks in jail before their case is resolved if they cannot afford their bond. In some counties, the average person accused of a nonviolent felony spends nearly six months in jail.
Counties could substantially reduce jail costs through smart pretrial reform
Oklahoma has made significant progress to reform its criminal justice system in recent years. SQ 780, passed in 2016 and effective July 2017, reduced felony filings by nearly 29 percent, effectively erasing 10 years of growth in those cases. In 2018, the Oklahoma Legislature passed a package of sentencing, supervision, and parole reforms that will avert most of the growth in the prison population over the next ten years.
In order to significantly reduce our world-leading incarceration rate, however, policymakers must continue to take bold steps that strike at the heart of the problem. The growth in pretrial incarceration has been the major driver of the increase in jail populations over the last several decades. Long pretrial stays can also contribute to more punitive sentences, as defendants desperate to resolve their cases take unfavorable plea deals just to get out of jail.
That’s why a bill that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, SB 252, is a critical next step in the justice reform process. The proposal follows the lead of many other jurisdictions across the country that have limited money bail in recent years. Far-reaching bail reforms enacted in New Jersey in 2014 have led to a 24 percent reduction in the pretrial jail population, and crime rates have declined in the years since. California passed a sweeping bail reform law last year that will eliminate money bail altogether when implemented in October 2019.
SB 252 aims to dramatically expand the use of “recognizance bonds,” a promise to appear in court without money bail, for people charged with nonviolent offenses. Within 48 hours of a person’s arrest, the proposal would require a judge to consider a person’s history of missing court dates and other factors and determine whether to grant a recognizance bond.
The new analysis by Open Justice Oklahoma helps to illuminate the scope of the problems with our money bail system and to estimate the impact that strong reforms could make. Lawmakers must continue to take bold steps on justice reform, and SB 252 offers an opportunity that they must not pass up.