‘Punishing poverty’: Attorneys say municipal court change will push low-level offenders into city jail

The city of Tulsa said the court’s procedures still are generous to those seeking to clear warrants and the change was necessary for operations to run smoothly.

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The Tulsa Municipal Jail can hold inmates for up to 10 days and is officially considered a lockup. Photo courtesy NewsOn6
The same day the city of Tulsa opened its municipal jail, a rule change that could help fill its cells quietly went into effect.

On Feb. 28, three municipal judges signed an administrative order that changed municipal court procedures. The order, effective March 1, whittled down what defense attorneys say was the court’s lenient docket add-on process.

Under the change, defendants who fail to appear for a court date, pay ticket fines or complete work hours have 60 days to clear their warrants by adding themselves onto a docket to see a judge. After that, defendants now must surrender to the city jail or risk being arrested on warrants.

Defense attorneys say the new procedure will push low-level offenders and people who can’t afford to pay fines behind bars. However, the city of Tulsa said the court’s procedures still are generous to defendants seeking to clear their warrants.

Tulsa defense attorney Stefanie Sinclair said the change turns the city’s lockup into “a debtor’s jail.”

“There was no notice to anybody,” Sinclair said of the procedure change. “Now they (the city) have their own jail and they need to fill it.

“I feel like they’re basically punishing poverty.”

Tulsa Municipal Court Administrator Kelly Brader said the order will keep those accused accountable and help court operations run smoothly.

“We’re (the court is) still being lenient,” she said. “but not as lenient as we were.”

‘We’re controlling our own destiny’
The Tulsa Municipal Jail, 600 Civic Center, can hold inmates for up to 10 days and is officially considered a lockup. City inmates include only those with municipal charges or those with a mix of city charges and state misdemeanor charges.

Municipal charges include offenses such as speeding tickets, public intoxication and driving without a license.



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Before the municipal court’s procedure change, Sinclair said, defense attorneys were allowed to add a client onto a docket to clear warrants even if the client had missed a court date or payment by several months.

Sinclair was surprised on March 5 when a municipal judge told her she couldn’t put a client on a docket, she said. The client was more than 60 days passed due on municipal tickets for larceny and driving without a license.

Sinclair said the client wanted to see a judge in order to clear her warrants and get back on a payment plan for $1,300 in fines.

The client, who is a young first-time mother, works part time at Kentucky Fried Chicken and can’t afford to pay the fines or go to jail, Sinclair said.

“She’s driving around with warrants now until she can bond in and bond out or come up with the full $1,000,” she said. “She had to drive to her job yesterday. This woman has no other choice.”

Sinclair said she used the courts lenient docket add-on procedure several times each week to clear clients’ warrants.

“These are moms that will be sitting in their black-and-white uniforms instead of holding their babies and doing what they are supposed to be doing,” Sinclair said.

The city of Tulsa Municipal Court said the change was necessary to hold people accountable and keep operations running smoothly. Photo courtesy NewsOn6

Mike Brose, executive director of Mental Health Association Oklahoma, said he believes the organization’s clients will be affected by the procedure change.

“We know that the people we work with oftentimes are the people that don’t show or don’t pay their fines,” Brose said.

One of the ways MHAO helps its clients avoid jail is the Special Service Docket, Brose said. The program is a collaboration between the city’s municipal court, MHAO and other local nonprofits that gives people who have been charged with misdemeanors a chance to have fines dismissed and bypass jail time. In exchange, they are required to participate in programs and show up to court dates.

“I think the issue is for the Special Services docket is it’s already at full and beyond full capacity,” Brose said. “I think there’s an opportunity if the city sees fit to have a second docket. We have recognized for awhile we could fill up a second docket tomorrow.”

However, Brose said, opening a second Special Services Docket would require more funds and other resources.

“I think with the city lockup, it could be a good opportunity to use the two together,” he said.

Court administrator Brader said the change was made to make day-to-day court operations more manageable. Court dockets were getting so large they were getting difficult for her staff to maintain, she said.

“They (municipal court staff) were barely getting 30 minutes for lunch before the next docket started,” Brader said. “We had to do something better managed to allow my staff to get their stuff done and get prepared for the next docket.”

Brader said the municipal court’s add-on policy is still generous, although the procedure became less lenient when the city opened its own jail. Prior to that, the city had to worry about sending municipal inmates to an already crowded Tulsa County Jail.

The opening of the city’s lockup has alleviated that problem, Brader said.

“We’re controlling our own destiny,” she said.

The city is set to review the procedure change June 1.

The opening of the municipal jail ended a years-long dispute between the city of Tulsa and the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office over how much the city should pay to house municipal inmates in David L. Moss — the Tulsa County Jail.

The Tulsa Police Department manages the city’s lockup, and 25 detention officers from the privately-run G4S Security staff the jail. When the 30-bed jail is over capacity inmates will be sent to the Okmulgee County Jail, about an hour away from Tulsa.

In a statement to The Frontier, the city of Tulsa Municipal Court said the court provides defendants chances to clear warrants that are “over and above” what the law requires. The court’s current add-on policy allows defendants to see a judge any day a docket is available.

The statement said judges can make exceptions for good cause — such as a documented illness or in the case the defendant was incarcerated at another facility — regardless of how old the warrant is.

“Every defendant should be and is treated with respect and provided due process under the law,” the statement said.

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung joined The Frontier in May 2016. She reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Kassie holds a bachelors degree in multimedia journalism from Oklahoma State University. She likes dogs, maps and data. She can be reached at Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044. Follow her on Twitter @KassieMcClung.
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