Oklahoma’s cash bail system hurts children the most.

by Deon Osborne, Associate Editor
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Courtesy of Gabriel Berophs

Published 12/18/2019 | Reading Time 1 min 37 sec 

By Deon Osborne, Senior Writer 

As Oklahoma grudgingly works to decrease its world-infamous incarceration rate, conversations around eliminating cash bail in Oklahoma leave out the fact that the children left behind sometimes end up homeless.

In mid-December 2019, the ACLU came out strongly against the cash bail system in Canadian County, calling it a violation of the equal protection clause of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

Criminal justice efforts on the state and national levels have worked to reduce prison populations in recent years, though focusing mostly on sentencing reform.

State leaders should take more urgent action to reduce our incarceration rates because separating a parent from their child over an inability to pay fines interrupts the stability of our state’s youth, setting up our already drug and poverty-inflicted communities for failure.

As a society, America has ample evidence that illustrates how cash bail is an unfair system that disproportionally locks up poor people and people of color. But as a youth specialist working at one of the state’s largest youth shelters in Tulsa County, I’ve witnessed children have no other choice but to enter our institution simply because their single parent can’t afford bail.

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While some might blame the parent’s actions for their economically unequal confinement, when something as minor as a traffic ticket can leave an impoverished working parent trapped behind bars, it’s difficult to find a justifiable reason for sending a child into an unpredictable and potentially dangerous, traumatic housing situation.

Youth shelters typically take in clients from family conflict, abuse, or poverty-related backgrounds. Oklahoma’s refusal to earnestly invest in mental health services and equitable education, however, has resulted in some shelters taking in children from intensive, in-patient mental facilities, along with non-violent and violent offenders from juvenile detention centers.

As a result, mentally and emotionally stable youth entering Oklahoma’s shelters are at a greater risk today of leaving with more trauma than when they entered the facility.

Leaders who preach family values should be expanding opportunities for non-violent offenders to fulfill their legal obligations while staying connected to their children.

Oklahoma already has the highest rates of childhood trauma in the nation. Continuing an unconstitutional, costly, and unfair system of locking up poor people before they’re proven guilty helps no one correct their mistakes. 

Instead, it traumatizes our state’s most vulnerable children and threatens the security of our collective future.

Deon OsborneDeon Osborne was born in Minneapolis, MN and raised in Lawton, OK before moving to Norman where he attended the University of Oklahoma. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Strategic Media and has written for OU’s student newspaper the OU Daily as well as OKC-based Red Dirt Report. He now lives in Tulsa, where he works at a local youth shelter. He is also a former intern at Oklahoma Policy Institute.

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