In a six-part series, The Oklahoman examines the underfunded Oklahoma County criminal justice system, which is buckling under the weight of an overcrowded jail, a backlog of court cases and a mountain of felony and misdemeanor filings. The newspaper says the system locks up the poor, often on minor charges, and then punishes them for being unable to pay fines and court costs. It’s a system that offers judges little flexibility in setting bail, where agencies do not effectively communicate with each other and where poor data collection hampers the ability of officials to shape public policy based on information about who is in jail and why.
The system is beset by case-processing delays, budget turmoil and staffing shortages that lead to nonviolent offenders filling jail beds. As they await justice, inmates also face paying some of the freight when they leave, through crippling fines and fees piled on as they navigate the system. The result can be lost jobs, shattered families and broken lives. On any given day in the county jail sit hundreds of people awaiting charges on low-level offenses, often the community’s poorest who cannot make bail. The Vera Institute of Justice has concluded that Oklahoma County is “essentially running a maximum security correctional facility for people who are legally innocent.”