Criminally Poor: Is the Oklahoma County Jail a 'Debtor's Prison'?

Oklahoma's criminal justice system is at a "crisis position," prompting the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce to create a panel to address justice reform, particularly in reference to jail overcrowding and the policies which turn jails into warehouses for the mentally ill and those without the financial means for bail pending the outcome of their case. 

At a panel meeting this week, former Speaker of the House Kris Steele called the Oklahoma County Jail a "debtor's prison." Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater agreed, saying that the majority of people in prison are poor, because if they had money--if they were "rich"--they would be able to post bail.

But we aren't talking about exorbitant bail amounts, like the high bonds for murder defendants and sex crime defendants. Instead, says Oklahoma County Sheriff Jon Whetsel, 76 percent of people come into the jail with bonds at $5,000 or less. However, they remain in jail because of poverty. Even if they could drum up the means to post bond, state policies would prevent them from getting a public defender. If they have enough money to get out of jail, the thinking goes, then they have enough to hire an attorney. For most, though, it's a cost-benefit analysis. Do I bail out so that I can go to work/be with my family? Or do I sit in jail so that I can get an attorney?

Remember, these are people accused of crimes--not convicted of them. So a person accused of a petty crime may sit behind bars for months pending his or her day in court, a person charged with a violent crime or sex offense may be able to go about his or her daily routine in freedom, simply because he or she has the financial means to bond out of jail and hire a defense lawyer.

Of course, those in poverty are not the only ones who remain warehoused in jails pending trial. Those with mental illness and substance abuse issues often lack the resources--financial or otherwise--to get out of jail. And we have written before about how the Oklahoma County jail, and jails around the state and the country, are not equipped to treat mental illness.

View our infographic on the topic here.

Suggestions for improving the problem of jail overcrowding include building a new jail--but is the capacity to warehouse even more people really going to solve the problem? Will it address the situation at its root? Instead, recreating policies in order to prevent the unfair incarceration of those in poverty or suffering from mental illness would go further toward easing the crisis.  For example, Prater calls existing methods for determining bond "arbitrary"; better assessment tools, including the seriousness of the alleged offense and the defendant's ability to post bond; could ease some of the problems.   

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