Biding Time (Part IV): Do the most with the least

PART FOUR The Oklahoma County jail is decrepit and overflowing with inmates. But experts say building a new jail won't solve all the problems that confront the county's criminal justice system.

story by josh dulaney
design by richard hall
photos by the oklahoman photographers
published june 28, 2017

From head to toe, his attire is befitting of an important and busy man. Bob Ravitz, the county public defender, sports a blazer, slacks and a necktie. Also, a pair of running shoes.

“I got plantar fasciitis,” he says, before joking about having to change into dress shoes before he enters a courtroom.

Ravitz, whose office handles thousands of Oklahoma County cases each year, leads a quick tour of his sixth floor dwellings in the courthouse, his voice crackling and accented as though it was forged in a Northeastern pub, despite growing up in Florida.

“Get your feet down,” he tells an attorney propping them on a desk. “There’s a reporter here.”

In another lawyer’s office, that of a man they call “Tarzan,” manila folders and paperwork rise from the floor to the ceiling, and on a chair, a doll’s face, in the likeness of what appears to be professional wrestler Ultimate Warrior, peeks out from under a pile of legal field detritus.

Another attorney toils in a makeshift office stuffed with filing cabinets.

“Typical public defender style,” the lawyer says. “Do the most with the least.”

Burdened with heavy workloads, and dealing with a county jail beset by understaffing and limited space, public defenders in Oklahoma County face weeks of delays even trying to meet with their clients. The delays contribute to slow case processing and long stays behind bars.

Those are some of the conclusions reached by the nonprofit and New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, which in December released a 90-page report on the county jail and the criminal justice system in Oklahoma County.

As inmates languish in jail, they may lose their jobs, their housing and their families. About 80 percent of inmates are held pretrial, meaning they have not yet been convicted of a crime in their case.

“We’ve done so much in transforming this community over the last 20 years with MAPS, but we still have this huge issue in our community, and it’s not getting addressed,” says Roy Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.

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