Courts help alleviate overcrowded jail with OR bonds

OKLAHOMA CITY – Amanda Freeman should not have died in jail, 7th District Court Judge Cindy Truong said.

Freeman’s arrest in February seems appropriate in hindsight and is not a matter of contention. The 32-year-old woman was picked up after Oklahoma City police saw her jump from a moving vehicle and run off, obviously injured, records show. A custodial search of her companion’s car turned up small bags of a crystal-like substance and a glass smoking pipe.

As she was booked into the Oklahoma County jail, staff determined Freeman needed to be placed under medical observation for those injuries. She remained in the medical wing for four days, unable to post bond, until her death. An autopsy determined she died from coronary failure, likely due to methamphetamine use.

It’s impossible to say that Freeman would still be alive today if she hadn’t been locked up, but Truong said letting her out on her own recognizance would have given the woman more options for treatment and better odds overall. Freeman had no history of prior arrests; she was a low risk.

“We didn’t have an OR program back in February,” Truong said of the bond release program now taking shape in Oklahoma County. “She stayed in there a couple days … and she died. If we had the program we have now, she could have gotten out for the help she needed.”

Truong and other district court judges are trying to avoid more Freeman scenarios, but the local bail bond industry isn’t pleased with the culture change.

Jail population reduced

On Sept. 8, seven months after Freeman’s death, the jail’s morning population count dropped below 2,000 for the first time in several years. At the beginning of 2017, the number topped 2,400.

And the numbers continue to fall closer to where they should be according to the jail’s original design. The shift is the result of a concerted effort by local police departments, judges and business leaders to change how quickly detainees are processed and moved to more appropriate programs.

As the county’s chief public defender, Bob Ravitz, put it, “We’re trying to identify those offenders who are not a flight risk and are not threats to society, and get them out of jail.”

Part of the problem is that crime numbers have grown. In 1981, the state of Oklahoma had about 7,000 people in prison; that number is 27,000 people now, Ravitz said. The state Legislature didn’t help anything by classifying more crimes as felonies worthy of detention, he said, and the Department of Corrections contracted for temporary detention space. And while that’s been happening, an overwhelmed court system slowed down in addressing each case. Back in 1996, the county jail population stood at just 1,300.

The nonprofit Vera Institute turned its attention to the 13-story county jail at the request of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, itself responding to a request by county officials. Oklahoma County commissioners and the sheriff have been under pressure by the U.S. Department of Justice for nearly a decade to make significant changes at the jail.

Justice Department documents in 2008 provided a long list of problems that were creating an environment ripe for civil rights violations. An awkward physical layout meant blind spots for the staff, for example, and the jail needed better mental health programs to protect some detainees from themselves. The DOJ also found fault with the population – at 2,500, the jail was holding more than double its intended capacity. In short, the DOJ concluded the facility was unsafe for anyone in the building.

And unless all of the fixes were made, DOJ officials said, the department would step in and force the issue, even if that meant building a new facility at residents’ expense.

County officials did as much as they could and asked for help. The chamber, led by President Roy Williams, paid for a temporary position for a Vera representative to stay in Oklahoma City and help bring about more changes. Vera program assistant Alex Roth’s contract runs out in mid-November. Even after he moves back to New York, Roth plans to work on Oklahoma City as his primary focus.

“A key accomplishment has been establishing a permanent advisory council,” Roth said. “That process is well underway – we’re waiting for approval by the attorney general to be recognized. … It’s central to the recommendations that were made. Without a permanent body to coordinate efforts and provide a forum for the different people participants in the criminal justice system to interact, there’s really no way to get anything else done.”

Roth praised the leadership of the Oklahoma City Police Department for instructing officers to use greater discretion in how they discharge their responsibilities.

“It seems that policies have been expanded to let individual officers, in most cases when they have the authority to detain someone, they can choose to issue a citation to show up in court instead of being booked into jail,” Roth said.

Rebecca Silber, the program manager for special initiatives at Vera, said the value of keeping people out of jail should be obvious to the business community because it keeps people out of the economy. It’s a workforce development problem, she said.

Regardless of the impetus, Ravitz said, the outcome is a matter of practicality. Legally, detainees should not be held for much time at all; bond schedules must take indigence into account. Otherwise, the county faces the risk of even greater financial loss from lawsuits filed by detainees.

“The courts are finally doing what the Constitution requires and will prevent citizens of Oklahoma County from having multimillion-dollar judgments filed against them,” Ravitz said. “Even when we had an OR (own recognizance) bond program, defendants weren’t getting them for 72 hours. That’s three days and a violation of their rights.

“And if this program (of recent changes) wasn’t in effect today, we would still be at 2,500-2,700 inmates with all sorts of issues, tripling the number of rates and tripling the suicides,” he said.

As the jail population shrinks, it’s creating an opportunity to make badly needed repairs and upgrades in empty holding areas, referred to as pods, said Mark Opgrande, the sheriff’s spokesman. That, in turn, will help the jail meet DOJ’s expectations.

County commissioners recently declined the DOJ’s request for another jail review visit. They also sent a letter from District Attorney David Prater to help clarify the board’s reasons.

“The reform process initiated by the Department of Justice is still in progress and has impressive momentum,” Prater said in his letter. “The uncertain threat of future department involvement has been powerful in motivating reform and will continue to be – far much more so than an actual inspection.”

The DOJ has not yet responded.

Opposition by bondsmen

Opposition to change is inevitable, Roth said.

“Any other industry that profits from incarceration services is likely to express resistance if the population declines – for example, companies that sell telephone calls or provide smartphones in jails and prisons,” he said. “So any time there are major changes in bail practices, it has the potential to upset the bond industry.”

Bail bond agent Carol Knight said she’s been trying to schedule a meeting with one of the local judges to discuss her concerns. She doubts the Vera Institute’s statistics, but Knight also recognizes that arrested people deserve speedy justice. She is not entirely opposed to OR bonds as long as they don’t put the wrong people on the streets.

“People aren’t in jail because they’re poor,” she said. “People are in jail because they committed some kind of offense. At what point do we stop letting them perpetuate a cycle of criminal behavior?”

Other bond agents who asked to not be identified affirmed her perspective of their purpose in the community: They are a vital part of the justice system, applying pressure to bring defendants back to court.

“Bondsmen are the only part of the judicial system that does not cost taxpayers anything,” Knight said. “And we are the only component that pays for its own mistakes. If I post a $5,000 bond because your brother has been arrested for domestic violence, and then he does not go to court – he runs off to Canada – I have made a mistake for covering that person.

“That’s real money for us,” she said. “In Oklahoma, we average about $50 million a year in bail being written. About 10 percent of that is going to go bad. When you start replacing bondsmen with OR’s you’ve got to have someone else running pre-trial release.”

Truong said that’s a misunderstanding, missing the point of what she and other judges are trying to accomplish.

“We are not in competition with them,” the judge said. “One of the first questions we ask is whether they can afford to bond out. If they have a bondsman ready to go, that trumps OR bonding any day. We don’t want to use taxpayer money to replace what they can already afford.”

Cooperative effort

Oklahoma City has contracted with the county for detention space since the city jail closed in the 1990s. This year during the budgeting process, City Hall agreed to pay $2.04 million for jail services for the fiscal year, about $42 per detainee per day. That figure was based primarily on the previous year’s police arrest placements, a daily average of 119 detainees.

Many of those arrests have been on warrants for failure to appear in court and pay fines, which results in a cycle of additional fines. Police Chief Bill Citty said he is now following the lead of the local courts and has issued new orders.

“Our officers have been instructed to stop putting people in jail for failure to pay,” Citty said. “If they can’t afford to pay, they can’t pay. There are a lot of things out there in society that creates disparate treatment. Tickets and citations are one of them.”

Citty said defendants are still expected to appear in court and face consequences. But particularly for indigents, pre-court jail time serves no good purpose.

Fewer police bookings helps keep county jail numbers down. Detainee placement in appropriate programs does as well.

Ravitz recounted a recent case in which a woman, whom he did not identify, was arrested for public drunkenness. Truong arranged for her OR bond the same day to keep her from sitting in jail for most of the week.

“We actually drove the person the next day to HOPE, a mental health facility, for help,” Ravitz said. “She’s doing well today. It was pretty bad at the time. We told the sheriff not to release her until her son came to pick her up, but he never showed up because he went out and got drunk.”

The judge’s engagement and feedback from other staff in the process is making a big difference, Ravitz said. Truong credited special judges Mark McCormick and Kevin McCray as well for working beyond regular office hours. Sue Ann Arnall, former petroleum industry executive and founder of the nonprofit Arnall Family Foundation, has offered to hire a retired judge to help as well.

“The only reason some people are in the county jail is because they don’t have the money to bond out,” she said. “If they had the money to bond out, they could go get treatment and do whatever they need before coming back to court. But they’re stuck in jail. When they come before the judge, they’ve got no proof that they’ve been doing anything to help their situation.

“Our main focus is trying to help them do better before they come to court,” Truong said.

Read the original piece at journalrecord.com.

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