OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – As detention centers swell with people who can’t pay pre-trial cash bail, court fines or other administrative costs, there are efforts in place to provide more help for Oklahomans.
“Oklahoma is ground zero for folks being detained pre-trial without the ability to be able to afford to purchase their freedom,” said Cameron Pipe of The Bail Project.
Pipe said there are often two paths for people pre-trial: those who have money and those who do not.
“Cash bail is a leading contributor to mass incarceration [and] it is incredibly difficult to not point to the very first interaction with the court process,” he added, while saying the need for cash bail can keep many Oklahomans behind bars for weeks or months, before they’ve been convicted of a crime.
“These are legally innocent people and often times they are locked in incredibly harsh conditions, overcrowding, resources are not available like medical care,” said Pipe.
In response, The Bail Project helps pay bail for people who are unable to.
The organization relies on referrals from a number of sources, including by word of mouth, local organizations and public defenders.
The national , non-profit organization also provides pretrial services, transportation help to and from relevant proceedings and offers a range of support for long-term rehabilitation.
Pipe said through a unique model, a majority of their clients have been able to get much needed assistance, leading to an overwhelming percentage of folks who have returned for intended court dates, even without being tied to bail.
“[This has also been a help for] family members that have had to make a difficult decision paying the light bill or [are] trying to get the person they love out of jail,” he said.
One local legislator told KFOR – money is making Oklahoma more like a modern-day debtor’s prison for those who find themselves navigating the court system.
“Debtor’s prison or debtor’s jail where individuals cannot pay back their court costs. They cannot pay back their court fines or probation fines [and that’s a problem],” said Rep. Jason Lowe, D-Oklahoma City.
Lowe and Senator George Young will present a joint interim study to examine the effectiveness of different court-based diversion programs in the fall.
Court diversion programs often provide alternate paths to people so that prison or fines and fees are not the only option.
Lowe said they also plan to incorporate information analyze the effectiveness of court fees associated with trial and conviction, along with ways to support and improve existing programs, with a long-term goal of rehabilitating those who have been criminally charged.
“As a legislator and criminal defense attorney, I am a strong believer in rehabilitation over incarceration. We need to invest in these diversion programs that help with the rehabilitation process for Oklahomans in the court systems,” Rep. Lowe added, in a prior statement to the station.
“We need to make sure that individuals in the state of Oklahoma find resources that can actually help them.”