Lawsuit alleges county in Oklahoma running debtor’s prison

BY ASSOCIATED PRESS
03/28/2019 04:00 PM
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – A county in northeast Oklahoma routinely jails poor people because they can’t afford to pay court-ordered fees and fines, according to a civil rights lawsuit filed March 21 against three judges.

The lawsuit filed in Washington County on behalf of indigent defendants also names the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System and its board of directors. The suit alleges the state agency is complicit because it incentivizes attorneys to close cases quickly, even if it means forfeiting the rights of their clients.

“Proceedings in Washington County provide an extreme example of Oklahoma’s broken fines and fees system,” the lawsuit stated. “No ability-to-pay inquiry is made at the time of sentencing, nor are defendants advised of their right to such an inquiry by their OIDS public defenders.”

The suit claims indigent defendants are being jailed in violation of their rights under both the U.S. and Oklahoma constitutions, as well as a state law that requires courts to make an ability-to-pay determination when assessing fees and costs.

Washington County District Attorney Kevin Buchanan said it would be inappropriate to comment since he hadn’t reviewed the lawsuit. Messages left March 21 with Special Judge Jared Sigler and the executive director of OIDS weren’t immediately returned.

Two other judges named in the suit – John Gerkin and Curtis Delapp – have recently stepped down.

Delapp agreed to resign last year while facing on ouster trial before the Oklahoma Court on the Judiciary for abuse of power. He was accused of jailing hundreds of people for contempt of court, including one woman sent to jail for four days for eating sunflower seeds in court.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three Washington County criminal defendants by the Washington, D.C.-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.

Myesha Braden, the director of the group’s Criminal Justice Project, said they have been analyzing cases in Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma in which people are being incarcerated essentially for being poor. She said the problem is particularly acute in states like Oklahoma that have turned to “offender-funded justice,” a term she used to describe criminal defendants who are subsidizing the cost of their own prosecution.

“We kept seeing a lack of care or concern for individuals who were poor and unable to pay fines and fees,” Braden said.

One of the plaintiffs, 23-year-old Tulsa resident Sharonica Carter, who was imprisoned for two years at age 16, now owes more than $5,000 to Washington County District Court. That’s almost double the original fines and fees assessed in 2011, according to the suit.

“The debt endangers Ms. Carter’s ability to afford basic necessities,” the suit stated. “Her indigence and consequent inability to pay her fines and fees places her in imminent danger of repeated incarceration.”

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