Biding Time (Part II): Who do you want to jail? (The Oklahoman)

PART TWO A swollen county jail population leads to swollen courts, and many inmates' options are limited as they await their day in front of a judge.

story by josh dulaney
design by richard hall
photos by the oklahoman photographers
published june 26, 2017

Seated at his bench on the fifth floor of the Oklahoma County Courthouse, an American flag to his right, the state flag on his left, Special Judge Russell D. Hall leans back in his chair, props his face in his hand and looks at a nearby TV monitor.

It is the morning of March 1, and a handcuffed man in an orange jail uniform appears on the screen.

“Your name?” Hall asks with a soft-spoken drawl.

Less than a half-mile away, in the Oklahoma County jail, the man answers. Hall examines the paperwork on his bench.

“Dangerous substance with prior offense,” the judge says. “$3,000 bond. March 23rd at 9. We’ll have a public defender for you.”

An officer escorts the inmate out of the room and off-screen. Another man is brought in. Then another and another. The bewildered look down. The defiant cock their chins up and stare into the camera. Equipped with a remote control that changes the TV monitor from floor to floor at the jail, Hall can handle hundreds of initial court appearances in a day.

While the video appearances help move cases along more quickly, there remain dozens of problems confronting the local criminal justice system that contribute to an overcrowded jail. 

Among them, are the inability of a large number of inmates to come up with the hundreds of dollars needed to make bail and the inability of judges in some cases to waive or reduce bail.

In 2015, roughly 28,300 people entered the jail. The typical day found about 2,500 people behind bars. Of those who bailed out, about 16 percent did so on the first day.

But, on June 1, 2015, a third of inmates had been in the jail for at least six months, according to the nonprofit and New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, a research group noted for working with American cities on policy reform.  

Many of those inmates are among the community’s poor and cannot pay even the lowest bail amounts. Some are seeking treatment for addiction and mental health issues.

Countless will emerge with broken lives and shattered families.

“The question you have to answer is, ‘Who do you want to jail?’ ” says Roy Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce. “Do you want violent offenders that are dangerous to citizens? And the answer is obviously, ‘Yeah they should be.’ We want to feel safe and protected. But do you want to jail someone who steals that iPhone because they are a drug addict? Is that who you want to put in jail?”

Read the rest of the piece at

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