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Civil Rights Groups File Federal Lawsuit Challenging Unjust Cash Bail System in Canadian County, OK

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Published 12/11/2019 | Reading Time 3 min 29 sec 

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — The ACLU of Oklahoma, with national and local partners, filed a federal class-action lawsuit against court officials in Canadian County, Oklahoma, for violating the constitutional and disability rights of people who find their liberty denied at the whims of an arbitrary and unconstitutional pretrial detention system that centers release on wealth.

The lawsuit seeks an overhaul of Canadian County’s unconstitutional cash bail system which discriminates against poor people, locking them up simply because they cannot afford to pay for their freedom.

ACLU of Oklahoma, ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project, ACLU Disability Rights Program, Covington & Burling LLP, and Overman Legal Group filed the lawsuit on behalf of people incarcerated in the Canadian County jail. Claims include the absence of counsel when bail is set, the use of cash bail as a violation of the equal protection clause, failure to comply with disability rights laws, and an open courts’ First Amendment violation. 

This case is the first of its kind to challenge the treatment of people with disabilities in the context of unconstitutional bail practices, further challenging the impact of this arbitrary, wealth-based system on people who need reasonable modifications mandated by the Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

“We are suing to end the unconstitutional, wealth-based system of pretrial detention in Canadian County,” said Megan Lambert, staff attorney for the ACLU of Oklahoma. “A person’s freedom should never depend on how much money they have. But right now people who are presumed innocent are sitting in the Canadian County jail for one simple reason – they cannot afford bail. People are locked up rather than allowed to return to their jobs and families while they await their day in court. This unjust pretrial system violates people’s rights and holds people hostage because they cannot afford to pay for their freedom. It has a devastating impact on communities, especially communities of color, and must end.”

The research is clear. With each day in jail, the chance for a fair trial diminishes as it is tougher to mount a defense when behind bars. Pretrial detention is the single greatest predictor of a conviction and a sentence to jail or prison time. It is also more likely that a person will plead guilty, even when innocent, just to go home.

Just three days behind bars puts a person at risk of losing their job, home, and custody of their children. People with disabilities in jail often experience worsening symptoms and decompensation, further eroding their chance to participate equally in the criminal legal system.

“Canadian County’s pretrial detention system shows the need for comprehensive reforms beyond our country’s broken system of money bail. Every person accused of a crime in Canadian County has the right to be represented by a qualified defense attorney whenever a judge sets bail. A skilled lawyer is critical to ensuring that people are given the individualized considerations necessary for substantive due process,” said Twyla Carter, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project.

Attorney Carter added, “The problem is exacerbated by the fact that people who have a public defender in Canadian County and manage to pay their bond amount, lose that public defender after they are released. It is wrong to force people to choose between a constitutional right to freedom and a constitutional right to counsel.”

“Oklahoma has the unanimous distinction of being one of the most incarcerated jurisdictions on the planet. This is in no small part because of an unconstitutional pretrial detention scheme that locks up thousands of people who have not yet been tried—let alone convicted—of any crimes, simply because they cannot afford an arbitrary cash-bail amount,” said Blake Johnson, attorney for Overman Legal Group.

Attorney Johnson added, “Bail orders in Canadian County regularly are issued in closed-door proceedings, inside of a judge’s chambers and without any members of the public or press present, despite the Constitution’s guarantee of open access to the courts. The result is a disturbingly unequal administration of justice, where indigent defendants are incarcerated for long periods of time, without access to counsel and unable to participate in preparing their own defense, and the people of Oklahoma are denied their important right to oversee this critical stage in the criminal justice process.”

Research also shows that people with psychiatric disabilities are vastly overrepresented in jails. Federal government reports estimate that 40 to 68 percent of people in jail have psychiatric disabilities, far exceeding rates in the general population.

Once in jail, people with mental disabilities stay in jails two and a half to eight times longer than people without mental disabilities, often because they do not have accommodations required by disability rights laws.

“People with disabilities are subjected to a cruel combination of disability discrimination, poverty, and unconstitutional pretrial practices,” said Zoe Brennan-Krohn, staff attorney at the ACLU’s Disability Rights Program. “In the first case of its kind in the country, we are attacking this unjust system by bringing disability rights claims along with constitutional claims. It is time to hold the criminal legal system accountable for its failures to accommodate people with disabilities, and for the untold suffering this is causing poor disabled people.”

A copy of the lawsuit is available at acluok.org

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