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Cashed out

Oklahoma needs bail reform—and SB 252 can help

Advocates petition their legislators to take action on bail reform at the Oklahoma State Capitol.


The first time I bailed someone out of jail in Oklahoma it was late at night in the fall. My friend got pulled over for speeding outside of Enid. The officer ran her license, and she soon found herself in handcuffs.

She discovered that an expired tag and an outstanding ticket led to a warrant for her arrest and a suspended license. She’d meant to get her tag updated, but she’d been busy and a little tight on cash. It never occurred to her that anything to do with her car tag would land her in jail.

The officer who pulled her over was kind, and did not take her phone away from her as he inventoried her car. My friend (a young, white woman) was able to text me and explain the situation—a lucky break, since at the jail they mis-transcribed my number from her phone, and a promised call never came through.

In another stroke of luck, I was able to get the full amount to buy her release, assigned by a bail schedule, from an ATM: almost $800 in total. I got in my car and drove an hour and 40 minutes to the jail where she was being detained. It took me awhile to figure out how to get the attention of a guard to let me into the jail waiting area. Inside it was cold and uncomfortable and no one was eager to help me.

As I tried to pay the amount of money tied to my friend’s charge, I was told they couldn’t accept the cash I had brought with me because it was $5 more than the exact amount. They would not give change, and they would not just take extra. They would not take a credit card or check. I had to go down to a gas station to break a larger bill, drive back, and go through the process of being let in again.

After making the payment and waiting for her to be released, we made the drive home humbled and tired, but knowing she was so lucky for the situation to have turned out as it did. For so many people, that first night in jail does not end in release. The person they call cannot pay.

Most folks jailed in Oklahoma wait days or weeks before a bail amount is set by a judge, or any considerations are made for release. While the law says you’re presumed innocent, every part of the system is set up to make you feel condemned. Oftentimes, during that initial appearance in front of a judge, you are alone, unless you can afford private counsel. On one of the hardest days of your life, you are not granted an advocate.

Many jurisdictions in Oklahoma still use unconstitutional bail schedules—a document that lists bail amounts to be used for each charge—and for most people in the justice system, that amount is so high that you either need a bondsman, where you pay 10 percent and a non-refundable fee, or you sit in jail because of your inability to pay. Money bail is supposed to be used as a mechanism to secure reappearance in court, but in Oklahoma it is instead assessed in almost every case, and it becomes a de facto detention order. As a result, our pre-trial system assumes guilt, and is centered on wealth, not public safety.

This year, Oklahoma has an opportunity to take a step forward in reimagining its pre-trial system, and bring our statute closer to the constitutional floor, with SB 252. It is a bill that moves us closer to individualized assessments of ability to pay; requires counsel at initial appearance; requires an initial appearance happen within 48 hours of arrest; and presumes release for many non-violent felonies and misdemeanors.

It is not the dream bill, but it’s a profound step toward progress for folks who find themselves in Oklahoma’s criminal legal system. I’ve spent a lot of my time out in the world and in the Capitol talking to people about bail reform and the very real problems with our current system.

Oklahomans are ready for change, but sometimes our legislators feel more timid in their work on criminal justice reform. They need to hear from us and be reminded of who they represent. As this session winds to a close, I encourage people to call, email, and, when possible, meet at the Capitol or in your districts with your elected officials to talk about the need for meaningful pre-trial reform, with SB 252 and beyond.

Nicole McAfee is the Smart Justice Campaign Manager for ACLU of Oklahoma. For more information, visit the Campaign for Smart Justic website. Look up and contact your legislator here.

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