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Point of View: Bill endangers Oklahoma victims' rights

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With high incarceration rates comes high costs at the local and state level, leading many to look at potential criminal justice reform legislation for change. One such piece of proposed legislation is Senate Bill 252.

SB 252 is a catch-and-release bill that mirrors New Jersey’s and California’s failing bail reform and requires defendants be released from jail on their own recognizance (OR), which means they simply sign a piece of paper "promising" to return to court. There is no accountability or follow up to ensure their return. With failure-to-appear rates in Oklahoma County, one of our state’s most populated counties, already sitting above 50% month-over-month for those released on OR in 2019, it’s more important now than ever to ensure that the judicial system can make educated decisions regarding criminal justice.

We’ve been asked how we’ve arrived at the failure-to-appear rates; our process is something any member of the public could execute. FTA rates for any county can be found by attending daily public arraignment hearings at the local courthouse and tracking individuals who fail to appear and how that person was released — either on bond or not. It’s unrealistic to believe that releasing more defendants on OR would equate to more people showing up for court. Thus, criminals will walk our streets freely, potentially re-offending, without ever being brought to justice.

Also concerning is the burden SB 252 will place on local law enforcement if signed into law. County law enforcement officials would be tasked with investigating, locating and returning defendants to court, incurring costs that are not within most jurisdictions’ budgets. Without any accountability, defendants will have ample opportunity to skip town, leaving crime victims waiting on justice that may never be delivered.

Also consider the ramifications this bill will have on our judicial system. Judges would lose the ability to consider a defendant’s full criminal history, including potential substance abuse and previous violations against a government entity. The bill also prohibits detainment of any defendant for more than 48 hours, excluding holidays and weekends. As many Oklahoma counties already struggle to manage current workloads due to funding or staffing shortages, this will only add to the mounting pressure with an even tighter timeline.

Some criminal justice reform measures are needed to help decrease our overwhelmingly high rate of incarceration, particularly for those struggling with substance abuse or mental illness. However, broad sweeping legislation such as SB 252 could catapult our criminal justice system into disarray — all for the sake of short-term cost savings that likely will cost our state even more long term.

Merrill is president of the Oklahoma Bondsman Association.

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