Oklahoma judge works to reduce county jail population
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — It may be the only time he gets away with catcalling a judge.
On her weekend mission to release certain inmates from the Oklahoma County jail, Oklahoma County District Judge Cindy Truong, trading the black robe of the bench for blue jeans and a blazer, recently walked into the receiving area with a smile on her face and an armful of tacos.
She was accompanied by two female outreach workers.
To the delight of his fellow detainees, and over a backing track of clinking handcuffs, an inmate in the holding tank clawed at the metal mesh screen, whistled, and belted out a soulful but inappropriate “Heyyyyyyyyy!”
Inured to these weekly scenes, Truong delivered the tacos to jail staffers and set to work. Each weekend for the last three months, she has issued about 15 releases for inmates facing nonviolent charges.
“I have a stack of who was arrested last night and eligible for prerelease,” she said, pointing to paperwork for a man brought in on a failure-to-appear warrant stemming from bogus check charges. “I don’t let them all out. Just because they’re eligible doesn’t mean I approve them. I don’t do DUIs unless there is some assurance that there is treatment or a program.”
The work is part of a larger effort in the county to reduce jail overcrowding. At its peak, the Oklahoma County jail ran at double its capacity, with more than 2,400 inmates packed into the 13-story cloverleaf building rising above downtown bail bond shops just east of Classen Boulevard.
In January, the average daily population of the jail was 1,769 inmates, according to figures released by the sheriff’s office.
“When you decrease the population as all of these efforts have, it takes a lot of stress and strain off the system,” Mark Opgrande, spokesman for the sheriff’s office, told The Oklahoman . “It’s allowing us to fix up some of the pods, do some reconstruction, painting and cleaning up. Whenever you have a huge population, it puts a lot of stress on the system. Of course, the staff who work there, it puts stress on them and it puts stress on the inmates too.”
In the receiving area, an inmate approached a counter, across from which Truong stood with her stack of paperwork, mulling over whom to release.
“I saw you in court,” Truong said. “What are you doing here?”
The man was arrested for allegedly being drunk in public in Bethany.
“I called the cops on myself to get in detox,” he said.
To his disappointment, Truong told the man he needed to stay in jail. According to Truong, the man is homeless and sleeps in apartment complex laundry rooms.
“I will take care of you Monday,” she told him.
Truong approached another counter and set her paperwork down. Across from her, the men in the holding cell whispered to each other. No one whistled. They learned that Truong has the authority to release some of them.
A detention officer looked on.
“She’s like our 24-hour judge,” the officer said.
While the kind of work Truong does receives full-throated support from some corners, others urge caution.
Those in the bail bond industry have been critical of pretrial release programs. Admitting that the effort cuts into their profit, veterans of the industry also suggest taxpayers should carefully consider whether releasing more inmates pretrial is good for a community.
“The Oklahoma Bondsman Association does believe there are special circumstances that warrant the use of an (own recognizance) bond, but overuse of this alternative could have a disastrous effect on the judicial system, negative ramifications on victims of crime and, ultimately, increased costs to taxpayers,” said Laurie Poole, a board member for the bondsman group.
The initial cost to house an inmate in jail may be saved through pretrial releases, but taxpayers may end up footing a bigger bill in the long run, Poole says.
Poole claims that in December, roughly 41 percent of those released on an own recognizance (OR) bond — on their initial appearance before an Oklahoma County judge — did not return to court.
In comparison, only 3 percent of those released by posting bail through a bondsman failed to appear, she said.
“This stark difference is due to the diligence and responsibility of bondsmen to ensure the defendants return to court, and since bondsmen operate as private businesses, their services are rendered at no cost to Oklahoma taxpayers,” Poole said.
The lack of financial obligation, for the accused released on an OR bond to reappear for court, places any monetary responsibility for their apprehension onto taxpayers, bondsmen say.
“This means that while the release of a defendant on an OR bond may lead to a cost savings on the front end, taxpayers must then pay any expenses for their apprehension on the back end, if that defendant fails to return,” Poole said.
About 80 percent of people in the Oklahoma County jail were held pretrial, meaning they had not been convicted of a crime, according to a 2016 report by the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice.
Many are too poor to get out. Some are good candidates for pretrial release, Truong said.
“These are people who cannot afford bail,” she said.
Truong disputes failure-to-appear rates cited by bondsmen, saying they frequently tell people it’s 50 percent among those released on their own recognizance.
From October to November, 4,122 people were considered for OR bonds or conditional releases, according to a pretrial release report provided by Oklahoma County Court Services.
Of those, 579 people, or about 14 percent, were let out on their own recognizance or conditional release. Ninety-four people, or about 16 percent, failed to appear in court, according to the report.
Truong says for those under supervision, the failure-to-appear rate falls to about 4 percent. In some cases, Truong says, bondsmen call her and request that she release their clients, because another bondsman has surrendered them.
Similar to other pretrial release programs, Truong says she looks for inmates who have committed low-level offenses such as property crimes and bogus check writing, or those for whom a diversion program could work.
“We want to protect the public, but at the same time, we want to get people into treatment and get jobs and be productive citizens,” she said.
Outside the holding tank, an inmate clad in jailhouse orange sat on a bench, recovering from a bad night. He was arrested for allegedly driving under the influence.
Abigail Otto, one of the outreach workers who joined Truong, sat down next to the man and explained a program for which he may be eligible. Otherwise, he could spend a long time in the county jail.
“Sign me up!” he said.
Moments later, Truong warned the man not to drink and get behind the wheel. It was a fruitful day for the district judge. And a lucky day for a few inmates. Maybe they will gain entrance into a program, find employment or keep the jobs they have.
Truong is proud to offer people second chances, but acknowledged that as she releases an inmate from jail, more are walking in.
“I really don’t know what we can do to solve the problems we have,” Truong said. “We don’t have the funding for treatment. It’s a revolving door.”
Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com