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Civil Rights Lawsuit Claims Oklahoma Court Discriminates Against People With Disabilities

The control room of the Canadian County jail.
Quinton Chandler
StateImpact Oklahoma
The control room of the Canadian County jail.

In a first-of-its-kind federal class action lawsuit, people who have been locked up in the Canadian County Jail claim the court’s bail system discriminates against people with mental disabilities.

The plaintiffs also claim the Canadian County District Court and five of its judges routinely set bail without considering whether it’s affordable.

They say prisoners are arraigned without an attorney present and arraignments are held outside of public view, in the jail by video conference.

Megan Lambert says the county’s treatment of defendants pretrial is unconstitutional. Lambert is an attorney with the ACLU of Oklahoma and she says the court’s actions have consequences for people with disabilities, like severe anxiety.

“One person described it as being on a conveyor belt …,” Lambert said. “The presence of a jail officer behind you also triggers a lot of people’s PTSD.”

Lambert and other civil rights attorneys representing the plaintiffs say this is the first time a court has been sued for discriminating against disabled people in pretrial proceedings. U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics data suggests between 2011 and 2012, 40% of people in U.S. jails reported having a disability. Cognitive disabilities were most commonly reported.

The plaintiffs want accommodations made for people with disabilities, they want bail set according to people’s income and timely bail hearings in open court with defendants who have attorneys.

Canadian County District Court’s Presiding Judge Paul Hesse gave this statement on the case, Wednesday. Hesse is also named in the lawsuit.

The federal complaint filed yesterday by the NAACP and others criminally charged as defendants in Canadian County does not fully and accurately describe the bail procedures that currently exists in Canadian County. Also, many of their factual assertions are patently false. The judges of this judicial district follow regular procedures and administrative orders that are designed to protect the rights of all arrestees and accused. For example, bail reform measures implemented in 2018 by District Court Judge Paul Hesse have resulted in a significant decline in the jail population and the routine release of inmates on personal recognizance. A review by the federal court of the bail procedures in Canadian County is welcomed.

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Quinton is joining the team at StateImpact Oklahoma, focusing on criminal justice reporting. He is an OSU grad with degrees in Economics and Marketing who got his start in radio at KOSU. After graduation, Quinton served as Morning Edition Host/General Assignment Reporter at KBBI Radio in Homer, Alaska and Education Reporter at KTOO Public Media in Juneau, Alaska. Quinton loves writing, reading and has an intense relationship with his Netflix account.
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