Tulsa County’s monetary bail system is unconstitutional because it indefinitely holds poor people behind bars despite a presumption of innocence and inflicts “devastating consequences,” claims a lawsuit seeking class-action status.
A national and local civil rights group jointly filed the petition late Wednesday afternoon in Tulsa federal court on behalf of four Tulsa plaintiffs recently booked into the county jail.
The defendants are Tulsa County, the Sheriff’s Office, 15 special judges and the presiding judge of the district court.
The 34-page lawsuit describes a “wealth-based detention scheme” in which poverty-stricken people “bear the weight of this systemic illegal detention.” The “disproportionate incarceration” of minorities and the “unusually high rates of incarceration” for women in part derive from Tulsa County’s monetary payment system for release, it alleges.
The county’s policies and practices caused a pre-trial detention rate 18 percent higher than the statewide average and 83 percent above the national average as of August, according to the lawsuit. The plaintiffs contend more than 62 percent of people incarcerated in the jail on an average day are presumptively innocent and awaiting adjudication of misdemeanors or felonies.
“As a result of Defendants’ policies, people too poor to pay for their release are jailed for days, weeks, or months,” the lawsuit states. “This automatic pretrial detention of poor people has devastating consequences: people who are arrested lose their jobs, are evicted from their homes, endure separation from their children and loved ones, and face pressure to plead guilty as soon as possible because that is often the quickest way to terminate their unlawful confinement.”
Civil Rights Corp of Washington, D.C., and Still She Rises of Tulsa are the two civil rights organizations who teamed to file the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges three claims for relief:
• Violation of the plaintiffs’ equal protection and due process rights because they can’t afford a monetary payment.
• Violation of the plaintiffs’ right to pretrial liberty by jailing them without procedural due process.
• Violation of plaintiffs’ right to counsel by not providing them with lawyers adequate to challenge lengthy wealth-based pretrial detention.
It also seeks judicial declarations or injunctions to halt policies and practices the litigants allege are unconstitutional.
The lawsuit repeatedly takes aim with the county’s monetary bail system.
It alleges the county has a “policy and practice of refusing to release arrested people” unless they pay money, with the amount required “in almost all cases” predetermined by the offenses and a “secured money-bail ‘schedule.’”
“Defendants require payment of a generic, predetermined amount without considering a person’s ability to pay or the necessity of imposing secured money bail, and without making the substantive findings or providing the procedural safeguards that the United States Constitution and Oklahoma law require to ensure that pretrial detention is necessary to further a compelling government interest,” the lawsuit states.
District court reforms
Notably, recent administrative orders issued by presiding judges show the district court has taken steps to ease the financial burden faced by people accused of crimes.
Enacted in February, the most recent ordered the recall of outstanding warrants for failure to pay costs for defendants. The conditions are for the person to appear at the Court Clerk’s Office and set up a payment plan or, in instances of long-standing unpaid costs, make payments to a collection agency handling their matters.
An October order allows judges to select a single count among multiple charges — typically the most serious or the charge with the highest bond amount — and give defendants the chance to post bond only on that one count to gain their release.
That order doesn’t cover defendants charged with violent crimes, offenses against children or the elderly, aggravated drug trafficking or human trafficking. Judges also must determine bond amounts on a case-by-case basis for defendants facing charges related to firearms, gangs or witness intimidation.
The lawsuit’s plaintiffs are: Michael Parga, 37; Richard Feltz, 48; Tara O’Donley, 34; and Christopher Wood, 48. All live in Tulsa County, though O’Donley is homeless.
All four are locked up as they await initial court appearances on Monday, varying from a week to 11 days after each of their arrests.
According to the lawsuit, Parga is employed but “struggles to meet the basic necessities of life” and supports his unemployed wife. He faces a bond of $2,000 on a felony complaint of false impersonation that he can’t pay.
“Mr. Parga fears that he will lose his job and his home if he is forced to remain in jail until his first appearance,” the lawsuit states.
Feltz, who is unemployed, can’t afford a $50,000 bond on a felony complaint of child endangerment after a felony conviction.
O’Donley is homeless with no stable income, making her unable to pay a $500 bond on a complaint of misdemeanor larceny.
Wood works occasionally as a handyman, with only $20 on him when he was arrested on a misdemeanor complaint of possession of methamphetamine (first offense). His bond is $1,000.
“He has no other savings and does not have anyone in his life who can afford to get him out of jail,” the lawsuit states.