Officials strive to make municipal court system more humane as construction begins on new building

Officials strive to make municipal court system more humane as construction begins on new building
Keaton Draper
Officals with shovels breaking ground on the beginning construction of the new municipal courts building in Oklahoma City, Monday, August 3, 2015.

City officials broke ground on a new municipal court building last month. The new 65,000-square-foot facility is just one part of a larger effort to run a more humane system for Oklahoma City residents when they might be at heir most vulnerable.

Presiding Judge Philippa James and Oklahoma City Deputy Municipal Counselor Cindy Richard spoke with Oklahoma Gazette about problems officials face when trying to ease the burden on those coming into court. However, the financial status of some denizens and the high volume of cases make it a challenge.

Poor protection

James does not allow low-income residents to be jailed because they cannot settle a fine.

“The conviction stands, but we have another way to deal with the fines,” she said.

Defendants are given a form to fill out. Then there is a hearing to determine if they can make a payment.

“We don’t want anyone to end up in jail because they are poor,” Richard said. “For years, the judges would just hand out time for indemnification. But eventually, you’ve got to find out if a person is capable of paying.”

James has reinstituted the Rule 8 hearings, Richard said. Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals’ Rule 8 compels courts to determine if a person convicted also has insufficient funds due to “physical disability or poverty.”

“We are a little more quick on the draw now to get to the heart of the matter and find out what is going on with their financial situation,” Richard said.

Community service is also available for those who do not have the money for fines. The worker is assigned to nonprofit agencies like Goodwill or The Salvation Army, who fill out a timesheet and turn it in to the judge.

If a citizen cannot make restitution immediately and needs time for a paycheck to come in or to gather money, James has a standing order allowing the clerk to issue a 30-day continuance.

High volume

The large amount of cases handled weekly creates another issue. OKC has a large quantity of legal proceedings, far beyond any other jurisdiction in the state, because it has the largest population. With approximately 580,000 residents, the load can strain the system.

From July 1, 2014, to June 30, 2015:

>> 208,000 new citations were issued by municipal agencies

>> 140,000 hearings were held by four municipal judges and several part-time special judges

>> 145,000 cases were resolved without a trial by seven prosecutors

>> 492 cases were sent to trial

>> 472 cases resulted in convictions

Numbers like these can quickly turn a courthouse into a center of misery for everyone unless policies and facilities are constantly fine-tuned to address new issues as the numbers increase, James said.

New building

The previous presiding judge was William J. Manger. James said Manger worked tirelessly on the plans for a new building until his death in 2012.

“He was really the one who worked hard on all of the plans and promoted it,” she said. “I’m just here to see that it gets completed.”

The current municipal courts complex was built in two parts, one in the 1940s and the other in the 1960s.

Over the last several decades, it became obvious that the load on the courts would require a new facility.

The new building will allow people who simply want to pay a ticket to visit a kiosk and take care of it without going through the security checkpoint, Richard said.

In addition, hallways will be wider to allow for the flow of defendants, their lawyers and family members. Attorneys and clients will no longer have to confer in the hallways because attorney-client rooms will be available.

Technology will contribute to the free flow by directing visitors to the correct courtroom and allowing clients and attorneys to use courtroom technology to present their cases more easily.

The building will be ADA compliant in each courtroom, including the bench itself.

Smart policies and a new building will continue to provide a humane space for OKC residents who end up dealing with a part of the city that they might not want to engage but must.

Print headline: Court date, OKC’s municipal court system plans to make contact with it more bearable.

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