Oklahoma County presiding judge vows to change bail procedures

Oklahoma County's new presiding judge is promising to require judges who see jailed inmates for the first time to use discretion in setting bail and not just rigidly follow a bond schedule.

"It's my intention to make some changes in how setting bonds has been approached in the past," District Judge Don Deason said. "We need to have practices in place that mandate that we exercise discretion in appropriate circumstances ... not rubber stamp it."

His announcement of a change came in interviews Thursday and Friday with The Oklahoman. It comes at a time of increased public awareness locally and across the country that reforms are needed to prevent the poor from being mistreated by the judicial system when they are accused of crimes.

In December, a New York-based organization hired by a task force to study overcrowding at the Oklahoma County jail reported "money plays on outsized role in who occupies pretrial beds in the Oklahoma County Detention Center."

"Decisions about who is released and under what conditions are not based on an individualized assessment of circumstances, including risk as well as ability to pay," the Vera Institute of Justice told the task force.

On Monday, the U.S. Justice Department in a letter urged state judges across the country "to review court ... procedures within your jurisdiction to ensure that they comply with due process, equal protection and sound public policy."

The Justice Department specifically called unlawful any bail practices "that cause indigent defendants to remain incarcerated solely because they cannot afford to pay for their release."

Deason said the county could be sued for civil rights violations if judges don't use discretion in setting bail. He picked up from his desk an opinion from a federal judge approving a settlement of a lawsuit against an Alabama city that had an inflexible bail schedule.

“Well, first and foremost, it's to comply with the law,” he said of his decision. “If that has the additional effect of reducing the jail population, that's a further benefit.

“The philosophy behind it is that we need to take into account a person's individual circumstances including the nature of the crime, criminal history — if any — and ability to make bond,” he said.

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The presiding judge said he also is considering a proposal to allow an inmate to post bail on only the worst accusation that led to the inmate's arrest and not all the offenses.

Under the proposal, for instance, a motorist accused by police of felony drunken driving would post bail only for that and not on other complaints like illegal lane change or speeding. “You put three or four of those traffic offenses on somebody, you've increased the bond $2,000. For a lot of people, that's the difference between making bond and sitting in jail,” Deason said.

That proposal likely will need to be voted on by all the district judges, he said.

The proposal is one of those made by the Vera Institute of Justice. It did an analysis involving 622 people booked into the jail during a weeklong period in November. It said those 622 people were being held on 2,035 accusations. It said those held for the least severe reasons tended to have the most accusations, meaning total bail amounts would be high because “of the cumulative calculation of bond amounts.”

Read the entire story at newsok.com at: http://newsok.com/article/5486101

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